- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

This is high season for commencements, graduation from one kind of learning to another kind, from high school to higher education in college, from college to life, the transition of young adults to the larger world.

It's exciting and scary, paradoxically both expanding and narrowing perspective. Some young people feel liberated, others feel trapped. Often both. Thus was it ever, if that's any consolation to the frightened young.

But there's something else, something ominous, at work as young men and women move into the new millennium. The written word, the love of literature, the foundation for what used to be called "the learned world" is no longer available to many of our brightest children. This idea has been depressingly acknowledged by a variety of critical observers (including me).

Multiculturalism has become more important than Western civilization's highest achievements; political correctness politicizes language and literature, depriving it of its profound imagination and aesthetic coherence; television and computers make learning quick and often pleasurable, but reduce a young person's attention span and the yearning to read the more difficult masterpieces that are the light bulbs over the head.

We're short-circuiting the pathways to knowledge. "Information is endlessly available to us," writes Harold Bloom. But, he asks, "where shall wisdom be found?" Mr. Bloom, the sterling professor of the humanities at Yale, offers a remedy for those with neglected reading ability. In a small but wonderful book titled "How to Read and Why," he laments the loss of the canon and echoes the sentiments of Emerson, that society cannot do without cultivated men and women.

His exhortation may be too late.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization of professors, graduate students and college administrators dedicated to maintaining an informed understanding of Western intellectual heritage, issued a report this week that is grim news indeed. After surveying the English major programs at 25 of our most selective universities, NAS discovered that "gender and race" have become the major influences in determining what gets read.

As a result Toni Morrison, a black contemporary novelist, now ranks sixth among assigned authors who have ever written in English, ahead of all the American writers cited in 1964 (think Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson and Henry James) and ahead of almost all the British ones except for Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. The author of "Paradise Lost" only edged her out by four citations. Zora Neale Hurston, a writer of the Harlem Literary Renaissance, was cited more often than Twain, Fielding, Poe, Dryden, Pope and Swift. Aphra Behn, a 17th century female playwright, is ranked ahead of Shaw, Marvell, Pound, Scott, Auden, Beckett, Nabokov and Kipling.

The "survey course" from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot is rarely required. I once taught this college course and found it to be a splendid introduction to great authors within a historical context that students could later study in depth, with sharper critical abilities. Today an English major, if you can believe it, can earn a degree without ever having taken a course in Shakespeare or Milton. A student at Wesleyan University can enroll in a class called "Reading Television" with the following catalogue description: "Despite the fact the course focuses on what has been called 'mind-candy,' prospective students should know that this will be a rigorous course, requiring a serious commitment of time to reading about, watching and analyzing television texts."

The only way Thomas Mann, author of "Death in Venice," difficult but one of the authentic greats, makes it into a literature course is through gay and lesbian studies where students consider his "homoeroticism." (Not even Mann makes it to the Amherst college class of "Black Gay Fiction.")

We read for many reasons, usually more selfish than social, tapping into the insights of others to expand self-knowledge, and preparing us for the changing experiences that augment humanity. It takes discipline, patience and skill to learn and to teach careful reading with a guide toward mastery.

Reading is like overhearing another's thoughts, a private experience to be savored in solitude. We live in an electronic age where Oprah is regarded as an intellectual, where we are spoon-fed the most humiliating details of the raw confessional, untouched by genius. The dominant mentality is found in the German word Schadenfreude, of taking pleasure in another's misfortunes. Reading great literature inspires a completely different emotion, as the reader secretively stores the insights of human vulnerability as part of a personal journey toward the unknown.

Harold Bloom is puzzled why students of literature have become "amateur political scientists, uninformed sociologists, incompetent anthropologists, mediocre philosophers and over-determined cultural historians." As the NAS reports suggests, they never learn how to be anything better.

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