Writing about the academic culture wars, we have often had occasion to warn about the institutionalization of a 1960s-style radicalism. Although it is an inelegant mouthful, that polysyllabic phrase seemed the neatest formula for describing the disturbing transformation of cultural radicalism from a force besieging the establishment from the outside into a blithely accepted even celebratedaspect of the very establishment culture it had once sought to destroy. This project of redefinitionof the fringe as mainstream, the periphery as center, the deviant as normalis enormously complex and has wrought still unfathomed changes in our society and way of looking at the world.
Indeed, a full inventory of such changes would amount to a chronicle of a revolutiona cultural revolution in which the moral and intellectual fruits of our civilization have been dangerously compromised by principles whose full implications have yet to reveal themselves. As with any revolution, there are dramatic, even melodramatic, episodes to be recounted. In day to day life, however, Americas cultural revolution long ago began working itself out most patently in the pedestrian activities of establishment bureaucracies.
We were reminded of this recently when a press release from the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics crossed our desk. The ALSC, founded in 1994 to provide an independent alternative to the Modern Language Association and its radical buffoonery, is one of the few bright spots on the academic landscape today. With a robust membership now totaling about two thousand, it has emerged as a staunch defender of literary values at a time when literaturewhen cultural life generallyis everywhere subordinated to the egalitarian political agendas bequeathed to us by the 1960s. The latest benison performed by the ALSC has been to publicize and forthrightly to condemn the Standards for the English Language Arts that the National Council of Teachers of English recently promulgated for students from kindergarten through high school. The ALSC urged the rejection of these new standardswhich seem already to have been widely adopted--because of their disdain for literature, and because they reflect the widespread moral and intellectual confusion that has recently infected education at the college level.
As the statement from the ALSC notes, the new standards drastically diminish the role of literature in the teaching of what the NCTE calls language artsa phrase that is itself a splendid piece of bureaucratic euphemism, concealing as it does a concerted shift away from literature toward politics in the new standards. It is bad enough that only one of the twelve standards advocated by the NCTE is devoted to literature; even more insidious is the sociological imperative that infuses the document and according to which literature is henceforth to be taught not as literature but as a cultural artifact no different in kind from, say, advertising, political propaganda, or television. Literary criteria, the ALSC notes, are subverted by a relentless and misguided intellectual egalitarianism.
If this seems overstated, consider that in the Professional Summary of the standards published by the NCTE, teachers are urged to adopt an expanded definition of literacy in which being literate means being active, critical, and creative users of print and spoken language as well as the visual language of film and television, commercial and political advertising, photography and more. In other words, in this expanded definition of literacy, watching TVcreatively, of coursemight just as well qualify as an example of literacy as mastering Paradise Lost. In brief, this is an exercise in semantic expansion that George Orwell would have admired as an accomplished example of Newspeak.
Insofar as these new standards are enforced, artistic and literary concerns will perforce take a distant back seat to other imperatives. Accordingly, the new standards employ all the latest multicultural buzz words. They speak, for example, of teaching students to view and critique [sic] American and world history and contemporary life, of choosing texts on account of their relevance to students interest--instead of their intrinsic meritand of encouraging students to develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, etc.
Et cetera, indeed. The ALSC document notes that the Department of Education, an original supporter of the new standards, withdrew funding because of concerns about lack of educational substance. This might seem like a good thing. But it is worth remembering that the Department of Education under the Clinton administration has made similar standards a priority. In the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, signed into law in March 1994, the effort to force states and localities to adopt gender equitable and multicultural materials played a prominent role. The purpose of this legislation, as one critic observed, was to encourage egalitarian character transformationan enterprise that has more to do with reeducation than education.
In any event, the NCTE standards are starry-eyed and naïve as well as misguided. According to the Professional Summary, all students in this country can achieve the standards set forth in this documenteven if, as is said in the mandatory political coda, standards alone cannot erase the impact of poverty, ethnic or cultural discrimination, low levels of family literacy, and social and political disenfranchisement. But think about it: what kind of standards are they that all students in this country can achieve? There is also the unhappy irony that this document proposing to enhance literacy should itself be full of subliterate bureaucratic doublespeak: Students, we read, employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes. Writing what elements? Writing process what? We suppose that such rebarbative nonsense is only to be expected from expanded definitions of literacywhich is one reason that we would settle for encouraging the old-fashioned, narrow brand of literacy in which being able to read intelligently and write clearly were paramount tests of accomplishment.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 5, on page 1
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