- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

If they're in classes at Brown they can sign up for "Black Lavender: A study of Black Gay and Lesbian Plays and Dramatic Construction in the American Theatre." The course is described as an interdisciplinary approach to the study of plays that address the identities and issues of black gay men and lesbians."

Naturally, and maybe this is the point, such courses offer a social life and therapeutic possibilities.

In "The Bible and Horror" at Georgetown University, once a redoubt of rigorous academic training by Jesuits, the Bible is studied as "a scary book [that] often reads more like horror than religious literature." College students, who like horror movies for mutual snuggling, can sharpen their minds on what religion and horror (or the monstrous) have in common. No snuggling is allowed in the classroom. Well, not this semester.

My favorite selection is found at Carnegie Mellon, called "Sex and Death." It addresses "whether we need to liberate death now that (maybe) we have figured sex out." Awkward grammar and syntax aside, Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist who designed a core curriculum for Carnegie Mellon almost 20 years ago, probably was not thinking about death when he said: "We want to provide some common topics of conversation besides sports, the weather and sex." Shall we toast the new with a cocktail of embalming fluid?

There are lots more courses where these come from. Such examples are culled from the annual survey conducted by the Young America's Foundation in their current "Comedy & Tragedy: College Course Descriptions and What They Tell us about Higher Education Today."

Raising educational standards in the public schools is at the top of the list of both George W. Bush and Al Gore. But these bizarre college courses show what's being offered to students who have met only the highest standards.

How did this happen? Perhaps the politicizing of academic courses is in a direct line of educational momentum that began in the progressive theories of public school education as early as the turn of the 20th century. In a wonderful new book, "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms," Diane Ravitch, a critical scholar of education who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education in the Bush administration, argues that public schools suffered when educationists decided that social reform was more important than disciplined academic teaching.

Miss Ravitch focuses on the breakdown of traditionalism in public school classrooms that caused academic standards to deteriorate in lower schools, but it's not hard to see in her research a direct line of anti-intellectualism in the lower grades that led to the fashionable silliness at the university level as well.

Once John Dewey persuaded the educational powers in 1897 that the school was the primary means of social reform, public schools fell into the political arena that Miss Ravitch says "encouraged ideologues of every stripe to try to impose their social, religious, cultural, and political agendas on the schools." As a result "educators forgot how to say 'no,' even to the loopier notion of what schools were for."

Academic standards declined first for poor immigrants and racial minorities who were pushed into stratified and undemanding vocational classes because they were thought incapable of college-prep courses. By the 1960s, anti-intellectual and anti-academic theories that had hurt the less fortunate re-emerged under the rubric of "relevance," and maimed the minds of several generations of children of the middle and upper-classes. Learning techniques emphasized the importance of personal experience and social adjustment over intellectual and character development.

Representatives of high tech companies recently testified before Congress that America's young people are ill-prepared in science and math. They are also ill-prepared for conceptual thinking that evolves from demanding courses in history, literature and philosophy, requiring well-thought out connections between the past and the present, fostering an ability to distinguish between propaganda and information. Writing a coherent sentence is difficult for the graduates of our top schools, too, as any editor can tell you.

This is all the more important as young men and women are teased away from the rigors of learning in favor of television, the movies and the Internet. They can get lots of "relevance" without reading a book, but only a good education provides the intellectual capabilities to turn information into knowledge.

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