- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

"Good morning, students. As English majors at Ivy College you will be expected to master character development and language patterns of 'Family Guy' scripts, as well as the evolution of those techniques from 'Gilligan's Island' through 'Monty Python,' 'South Park' and dot-com ads. You will not be needing your father's copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I see a few of you have brought the collected works of Shakespeare. May I suggest you deposit them in the orange recycling tubs at the back of this lecture … I mean, video hall."

The foregoing is inspired, not from some lurid, late-night fantasy of a neoconservative intellectual, but from a study released last week by The National Association of Scholars in Princeton, N.J. According to their survey of the English Department curricula from leading universities, "the very stable canon" of English classics that has persisted until about 25 years ago is breaking down.

Now the study of film, advertising and contemporary American authors (often black and female) increasingly is displacing core English and American literature. The association notes, "If [English majors] aren't encouraged to absorb the richness of the English literary tradition, our culture can't help but be diminished. While some institutions still take this civilizing mission seriously, most, strangely, now think they have better things to do."

Strangely, perhaps for a conservative brought up on the classics, I more or less agree with the goofy, probably leftish English Department professors. The lamentable fact is that few of even the well-educated class read the classics anymore. When was the last time you curled up by a fire with your well-thumbed copy of Robert Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi" ("I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave! You need not clap your torches to my face, Zooks, what's to blame?")?

Yea, me neither. I had to look it up in my Norton Anthology. At least I still have my Norton Anthology. No, I assume the purpose of an English major in college is to learn to use and understand the living language and its living tradition. But movies, then radio, then television, then computers, now Internet streaming is taking a grievous toll on the printed English literary tradition. Increasingly now, people learn their language from the spoken word combined with the video image. They learn less from books, and almost nothing from the classics. The medium inevitably changes the message. An English major immersed in the classics already is linguistically dysfunctional in modern society a verbal eccentric.

The pleasures of the classics will be enjoyed primarily by antiquarians (I may found an antiquarian club bring your fountain pens, 25 percent cotton bond paper and tweed coats.) Even the very process of printing is coming to the brink. Last week Microsoft and Time Warner announced new electronic book ventures. The technology is still a little crude (in readable print, you can only get a paragraph at a time on the screen). But the discharging stream of electrons is taking all before it. Printed books will inevitably become the phonograph records of the mid-21st century. Just as there is a small table at the back of Tower Records where black vinyl records are still sold to "collectors," in a decade or so, Borders Books will still have a small shelf of books on exhibit, probably next to the magnifying glasses stand. But we are not the first generation to look back wistfully and forward with dread as a new communications technology takes root.

A full 300 years after Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable print into Europe, Leo Tolstoy in "War and Peace" complained that the "most powerful of ignorance's weapons … is the dissemination of printed matter." And though we now would wish our children would read novels, the headmaster of Tonbridge School in late 18th century England concluded: "If it be true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preceding, the great multiplication of Novels has probably contributed to its degeneracy the reserved graces of the chaste matron Truth pass unobserved amidst the gaudy and painted decorations of fiction." Even Ralph Waldo Emerson complained, "Instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm … Meek young men who grow up in libraries."

In the 19th century we had bookworms. Now we have couch potatoes. Saul Bellow cruelly, but astutely, suggests in his new book, "Ravelstein," that each generation thinks the world is going to hell in a hand basket not because it is, but because we all take as our standard the world as it existed when we came into consciousness. As that world starts slipping away, and we with it, we resent the new age and people who are replacing us.

The truth is, the written, then printed word, has been around in the West for 3,000 years, and it has served us superlatively. However, it took some time for the written word to match the spoken Homeric word. But video-computer-Internet technologies have been around only a decade or so. They are still in their primitive beginnings, still largely copying the older technologies. Already the flash of a video image can describe a 19th century London slum better than a page of Dickens. Conservatives should face the dawn, and bring their values to the new technologies.

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