During the 1960s and 1970s, committed liberals thought we could short-circuit the process of liberal education by creating advocacy classes with the suffix "studies." Black studies, Chicano studies, community studies, environmental studies, leisure studies, peace studies, woman's studies and hundreds more were designed to turn out more socially responsible youths. Instead, universities too often graduated zealous advocates who lacked the broadly educated means to achieve their predetermined politicized ends.
On the other hand, pragmatists argued that our future CEOs needed to learn spread sheets at 20 rather than why Homer's Achilles does not receive the honors he deserved, or how civilization was lost in fifth-century Rome and 1930s Germany. Yet Latin or a course in rhetoric might better teach a would-be captain of industry how to dazzle his audience than a class in Microsoft PowerPoint.
The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern -- communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.
Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The latest anti-Christ video shown at the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo's David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.
America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.
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