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Jewish World Review May 24, 2000 / 19 Iyar, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Dumb and dumber? --
I WAS RECENTLY EXPLAINING to my 4-year-old the difference between smart and knowledgeable. When he gets a bit older, I might refer him to the website of the National Association of Scholars (

The NAS keeps track of just how ignorant a nation we are becoming. It makes for disheartening reading. Higher education is considered the jewel of America's education system. Math and science departments attract talent from all over the globe. Yet as the NAS demonstrates in study after study, general education is in decline, grade inflation is the order of the day, and in humanities departments, rigorous requirements have gone the way of the typewriter.

Even when I was a student in the late 1970s, the dumbing down trend had gotten underway. Columbia College held to its traditional general education requirement (called Contemporary Civilization and Humanities), but we Barnard undergrads (Columbia's women's college) could get by with fewer required courses.

Compared with today's curricula, my student days were tough sledding -- requirements in one's major were supplemented with distribution requirements in science, foreign language, English and history. Still, a few trivial courses had already turned up in the course guide. A survey of "popular" literature (which, I confess, I took) went by a scatological nickname among the students. And there were courses affectionately referred to as "science for poets."

That was academic rigor compared with what passes for higher education today. A new report by the NAS exposes what has become of the once noble study of English literature.

Surveying the English departments at 25 of the nation's most selective colleges, and comparing today's offerings with those of 35 ago, the NAS concludes that majoring in English no longer guarantees a familiarity with the great works or traditions of literature in the English language.

Back in the 1960s, when professors still thought the English tradition was worthy of passing along, foundation courses were required of English majors. These introduced the student to the broad categories of literature (the novel, plays, poetry and the short story), while also placing the riches of English literature in historical context. In 1965, Colby College was typical in mandating a two-semester survey called "Major British Writers." The first semester covered "Beowulf to Milton," and the second "Dryden to the beginnings of the modern movement."

During that period at America's elite colleges, an English major could expect that 43 percent of his courses would deal with the major authors, periods and styles of English literature. Before graduation, he would be familiar with Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Milton, Swift, Pope, Fielding, Johnson, Austen, Wordsworth, Keats, Bronte, Browning, G. Eliot, Hardy and Yeats. The American writers usually followed.

In addition, back in the dark ages, four-fifths of English programs required comprehensive exams before graduation.

Well, you've probably guessed that things have changed. Those DWEMs and DWEFs (dead white European males and females) have given way to trendier and less substantial fare. While a majority of English departments once required survey courses, now only 16 percent do. As for those comprehensive exams, only two of the 25 colleges surveyed still require them.

In the interim, the number of electives increased by 74 percent, fragmenting the curriculum and diluting the influence of the great works. Many of the electives are highly specialized and politically charged. Sex has become a leading topic of literature courses. Williams offers "American Genders, American Sexualities," which considers "how sexual identities, desires and acts are represented and reproduced in American literary and popular culture."

At Wesleyan, English majors can elect "The History of Sex," which "focuses closely on a series of problems in the history and representation of sex in Europe and America." There are hundreds like these, as well as courses tendentiously "considering" race, gender (Toni Morrison is now more widely assigned than all but six writers in the English language) and homosexuality -- all for a mere 30 grand per year.

"We rely on our leading colleges to produce the next generation of writers, scholars, critics and educated readers," NAS president Stephen Balch laments. "If these gifted young people aren't encouraged to absorb the richness of the English literary tradition, our culture can't help but be diminished."

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