MAXWELL:  Learning’s foundations eroded Image of Betty reflects our ethnic health

3/25/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


While teaching the second half of an American literature course at the University of Illinois in Chicago during the late 1970s, I stayed in perpetual shock because the majority of my students, juniors and seniors, could not competently discuss one major work of any literary period. I vividly recall my distress during the first meeting of a class when I asked if anyone could name three writers of the “Lost Generation.”

This simple query was answered with embarrassed silence and blank expressions. At the time, I blamed the students. I learned, however, that few of them had been required to take a prerequisite in which they had to read the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. A leading professor in the department explained that “critical thinking” and “relevance” were more important than “an artificial list of so-called great works.”

I know now that my students were victims of a dumbing-down trend that had begun about 10 years earlier. Today, according to a report just released by the National Association of Scholars, that trend has gone unabated as the nation’s 50 most popular colleges and universities slash their core curricula. During the last 30 years, the report states, institutions have been “purging . . . many of the survey courses that used to familiarize students with the historical, cultural, political and scientific foundations of their society.”

Bowing to the pressures of political correctness and unbridled revisionism, many institutions have committed academic atrocities that include: drastically reducing the number of mandatory courses, while permitting too many electives; dropping comprehensive examinations and theses for graduating seniors; dropping many math and science requirements; eliminating mandatory foreign language courses; and no longer requiring philosophy courses.

Obviously, much of what passed for accepted wisdom in my day consisted of too much dead-European-white-male sentiment. But, for the sake of so-called “critical thinking” and “diversity,” we have tipped the scales too far in the other direction. I remain convinced that the Allegory of the Cave, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, The Iliad and Tartuffe hold wonders that can fire the contemporary imagination and guide students to a deeper understanding of humankind both past and present.

And in this age of so-called “values,” we need examples that have stood the test of time and scholarship. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that a single reading of Oedipus does more to teach young people about the significance of truth than 1,000 Christian Coalition sermons ever could.

Despite their learned detractors, I applaud the members of the National Association of Scholars for not retreating. They know that, by destroying core course offerings, we have “placed America in danger of losing the common frame of reference that for many generations has sustained our liberal, democratic society.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.