Ideas to Shake Up Education

Outspoken professor Camille Paglia advocates radical reform - a return to conservatism

PICK up an article by Camille Paglia, attend one of her lectures, or just sit across a table and have a conversation with her, and the topic of sex will come up - imaginative, arcane, pagan, sizzling sex. Count on it. The subject infuses her thought like histrionics in a Puccini opera.Next on on her list of priorities, however, (and more suitable for a family newspaper) is education reform. From kindergarten through postdoctoral studies, she rails against what ails the current state of scholarship. "I am the '60s come back to haunt the '90s," she says. She challenges current liberal orthodoxies in teaching art, religion, teacher preparation, and women's studies. Following a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., on reforms in academia, which she performed as much as delivered, Ms. Paglia spoke with the Monitor, zeroing in on her views about education. Petite in stature, fiery in delivery, she is a fervent believer in classical education, scholarly academic standards, and rigorous discipline. Contrastingly, and this is a woman of contrasts, she revels in pop culture and places rock-and-roll and cinema at the pinnacle of Western civilization for this century. Never in the mainstream academically, Paglia (pronounced PAHlia) is a professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelpia. Her book "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," is on the threshold of a breakout, a must read on college campuses. Vintage Books bought the paperback rights from Yale University Press. Sales are brisk. Identifying herself as an anti-feminist feminist, she is widely recognized as the leading critic of the way Women's Studies programs are taught. If she had her way, she would end such programs as presently constituted, she says. "Homer is flourishing in 700 BC. The idea that in the last 20 years feminism has made some radical changes in human nature is absurd," she says. One of her quips wryly posits, "Leaving women's studies to the feminists is like leaving your dog at the taxidermist's," followed by, "Gender on campus has become a code word for social prussianism." When asked to appear on the Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey shows to debate feminist issues with other authors, Paglia couched her refusal with typical chutzpah: "Would Caruso appear on the same stage as Tiny Tim?" she said. Her students come from low-income, minority backgrounds. Daily, she sees the "very bad consequences of America's two-tier education system," where the few are educated well and the rest poorly, she says. "Schools must be the preservers of the rational, Apollonian, logo-centric tradition," she says, characteristically compressing three great, Western intellectual traditions into one sentence. "My own writing style is influenced by rock music," she says. "It goes wham, bam." Hence the machine-gun tempo of her speaking. Children bring unformed, irrational minds with them when they first walk through the schoolhouse door, says Paglia. What is needed, especially given the sensory barrage of electronic media in American society today - Dionysian energy as she would categorize it - is for schools to go back to the mastery of facts. "Rote learning has a bad press," she says. She agrees with Neil Postman, author, educator, and media critic, that schools should not appeal to the television needs of students by being "television friendly." "Children are produced by televison," she says. It feeds the Dionysian side of the mind where emotive, impulsive appetites in human nature reside. "We need schools to build up strict analytic reasoning, aesthetics, the Apollonian side, then the playfulness of popular American culture, as ethnics and intellectuals, can be truly appreciated," s he says. Paglia "does have a talent for dramatizing herself," says Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, dean of the Women's Studies program at Emory University in Atlanta. "Great art is her focus. She has done what most academics have never done, but wish they had done. She has made accessible the notion that ordinary, literate people, can appreciate what is good, beautiful, and powerful." "She represents an intellectual trend that is a critique of the androgyny of the last 20 years," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, research associate at the Institute for American Values in New York City. "Paglia, in her uncivil discourse, is calling on civil means to make her case." Paglia's reforms for higher education struck a responsive chord in the audience at her MIT lecture, where, like a stand-up, improv comedienne (a trait she views as necessary for successfully teaching the humanities), faculty and students alike laughed uproariously at her lampooning of campus feminism and PC (politically correct) thinking. Yet, an evaluation of the type of reforms this radical from the '60s calls for, would, ironically, lead to conservative, almost parochial practices from the '50s, when she was growing up. Paglia attended public schools in Syracuse, N.Y. For higher education she wants the following changes: * All faculty must teach freshmen. Graduate students are not slaves to be relegated to teaching freshmen. * Classroom teaching is when you have one teacher in a room doing improv, looking at students as people. Classroom sizes must be small, especially with the proportionately higher number of students coming from different backgrounds entering college. "The core of education will improve when we give personal attention to students." * "Publish or perish" has got to stop. Rather, a faculty member's primary effort must be to teach. There should exist expectation that a professor produce a major work over the course of a 20-year career. Real scholarship will only materialize when professors write for the future, not for acclaim from their contemporaries. * The concentration of essay writing at the heart of the humanities curriculum is discriminatory against people of other cultures and classes and must share respectability with the visual image and musical performance. "The essay did not come down from Mt. Sinai, like Moses," she says. * In the humanities, professors need to be generalists. Possessing a specialty does not automatically equate with good teaching. Undergraduate education means a general education. Students, in order to earn advanced degrees, should not have to run around as academic errand boys for professors. * Knowing black jazz and blues should be a requirement for graduation from an American liberal arts college. How would she teach multiculturalism? In a two-year program, she says, with a historical time span of 10,000 years. Begin in the remotest antiquity with the study of archaeology. The first year would cover from the beginnings of pre-history to the birth of Islam; the second would extend from the high middle-ages to the present. Mandatory would be the study of the religion of each of the major cultures. "You must study the sacred texts of a culture before you can have any pretense of knowing it," she says.

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