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 celebrated—aspect of the very establishment culture it had once sought to destroy. This project of redefinition—of the fringe as mainstream, the periphery as center, the deviant as normal—is 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 revolution—a 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, America’s 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 literature—when cultural life generally—is 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 standards—which 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 arts”—a 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 TV—“creatively,” of course—might 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 merit—and 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 transformation”—an 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 document”—even 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 literacy”—which 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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