About Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University. He is also serving as Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997) and Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta (2001). His essays have appeared in Partisan Review, The Wilson Quarterly, The Yale Review, and TLS, and his reviews and commentaries have appeared in Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Weekly Standard, Reason Magazine, and Chronicle of Higher Education.
Email Address: email@example.com
Posts by Mark Bauerlein
Sunday, May 28, 2006
It looks like this year’s SAT results dipped significantly from last year’s. Here’s an AP story on preliminary findings, which come from university admissions offices. A full picture won’t appear for a few weeks, but some schools report a serious decline in the cumulative numbers. The UC system, for instance, tallied a 15-point slide.
The last time verbal scores dipped significantly, in 2002, one researcher at the organization that administers the test suggested that the cause lay in an increasing portion of high school English classes being devoted to visual materials. BUt we had a rise the following year, and 2004 NAEP data indicated that the amount of reading assigned to 8th- and 12th-graders was rising. At the same time, however, the leisure reading by the same group dipped significantly. In fact, the correlation between trends in leisure reading matched NAEP scores more closely than did trends in in-class reading. And yet, in addressing the issue of reading scores, educators, researchers, and journalists rarely talk about trends in leisure reading habits.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Here are some papers that were delivered at the annual CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication). With so many college students graduating without the ability to compose a coherent paragraph, one might assume the focus of the convention would fall upon writing skills and rhetorical structures. But for a fair portion of the entries, we get something else.
One paper is entitled “‘Register Your Penis’: Using Critical Discourse Analysis to Uncover Gender Conflict,” and the description runs, “As part of a larger thesis, this paper focuses on the “Penis Registry,” an activity introduced by CSU, Chico’s Women’s Center in support of Take Back the Night (TBTN), a nationwide university event . . .”
Here’s another one, showing us that there is no topic to which the race isue may not be applied: “Race, Rhetoric and the Digital Divide: From Digital Writing to Blogging.” And this: “Classroom and Race Issues for Building Community,” and this: “alternative Rhetorics: Postcolonial, Race, Womanist.”
And what would a general humanities conference be without something on the Middle East, as in: “Rhetoric and the Question of Palestine,” with a description containing the requisite sneer quotes--"The continuing saga of violence and bitterness known as the ‘Israel-Palestine conflict’ is less a matter of contested land than it is a matter of contested reality, framed in rhetorics that lead to radically different moral conclusions.”
And, to display hipness, we need some pop culture stuff, if only to show our appreciation of its subversive potential. Here is “Disturbing the Peace: Hip Hop as Theory, Politics, and Pedagogy,” and also “Rhetorics of Reception: Three Cases from Popular Culture” (two of them being the films Barbershop and Million Dollar Baby).
And, finally, for the political slant, there is a panel on “Towards A Progressive Politic in High School English Classrooms in Chicago.” Can one imagine a session at CCCC that begins “Towards a Conservative Politic”?
These are cherry-picked titles, of course, but they aren’t out of the mainstream of comp studies today. All the participants should hope for is that nobody with any decision-making power gets wind of them. They might find their funding streams drying up.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Here is a job posting for a “Literature Specialist.” It is at the National Endowment for the Arts, currently chaired by renowned poet/critic Dana Gioia.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
The Core Knowledge Foundation held its annual conference in San Antonio this week, and a highlight was the release of founder E. D. Hirsch’s new book, “The Knowledge Deficit” (Houghton Mifflin). The book nicely encapsulates the rationale for the core knowledge curriculum, especially in the area of reading skills. The premise is that reading comprehension depends not only on vocabulary and on reading aptitude, but on background knowledge as well, and there is a sizable research literature in reading and psychology to back it up. Most of the reading instruction that takes place in schools as students gear up for the tests takes a piece of prose and asks students the standard questions: “What is the author’s intention? What is the central idea of the passage? What persuasive strategies are employed?” The problem with this instruction, Hirsch maintains, is that it develops abstract aptitudes but ignores the background knowledge that is key to comprehending most texts. In sum, most of the passages that students read do not express all the content that is necessary for the passage to be comprehended fully. This applies not only to overt allusions and citations, but to larger contexts that “familiarize,” so to speak, the content to the reader. Without the background knowledge at hand, readers struggle to assimilate the text, to gauge its assertions, its unspoken contraries, etc. With every passage requiring a different background knowledge, there is no way to prepare for the test except to spend classroom hours imparting to students core knowledge.Continue reading "Announcements"
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Anybody wondering why students graduate with so little knowledge of history, civics, literature, the arts, and foreign languages might look at the Report of the Committee on General Education at Harvard. Comprised of faculty from across the university, the Committee was formed to examine the Core Curriculum and make recommendations for revision. (See it at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/curriculum-review/gen_ed_report_05.pdf.)
It is a strange document, and at the center is a disabling contradiction that represents well part of what’s wrong with higher education. A core curriculum is supposed to embody the knowledge that a successful student has acquired after four years of coursework. And yet, numerous times the Committee backs off from stating, or even approximating, what that knowledge should be. On the positive side, the document proposes “An increase in student choice and flexibility,” and it hopes to give “students more freedom to follow their own particular interests.” But does anybody really believe that students don’t have enough freedom when they come to college?
On the same lines, it avoids “prescribing what the breadth of knowledge should look like.” It hopes to “urge our students to try new things without prescribing that they enroll in any particular class,” and “It encourages students to take intellectual risks without requiring them to do so in prescribed ways.” How can you draft a core curriculum without prescribing something?
The recommendations the Committee does make come down to distribution requirements organized according to the standard categories: Arts and Humanities, Study of Societies, and Science and Technology—three courses in each. These might appear to provide solid breadth, but the plan leaves it up to departments to develop generalist courses for non-majors—a program that one can imagine many departments and faculty shying away from. Successful or not, though, the Committee “wants to make clear that these portal courses are not intended to introduce by stealth an alternative curriculum focused only on the traditional great books and Western Civilization courses.” By “stealth"--as if traditionalist reforms were so guilt-ridden that they must proceed under the radar. The last thing the Committee wants to do is “turn the clock back to an era in which a consensus about what all students should know was more easily reached.”
So, having drained the content out of their recommendations, the Committee comes up with something not much different from what we’ve seen in core curricula across the country—that is, where they still exist. But what such designs haven’t registered is just how little knowledge their graduates retain once they’ve left the campus. The Harvard report states that “scholars have been challenging many of the assumptions . . . about the criteria for inclusion in a list of great books and about the centrality of the West and its values.” But all the evidence shows that higher ed’s effort to broaden and “multiculturalize” student awareness has produced neither an improved understanding of our history and culture nor an improved understanding of any other civilization’s history and culture.
The Harvard report is one more band-aid that fails to address the real problem of student ignorance. It offers empty solutions to problems that have more to do with the anxieties of the professors than the needs of the students.
Saturday, November 19, 2005
Boys and Girls
The lengthy comments following the post on the “masculine space” of The Valve posed many questions about gender preferences and the tone of Valve threads. We should add to those speculations some of the empirical data on gender difference and literary/academic performance.
1. Ever since the advent of a broad reading public in America, more women have read literature than men have. For long time, literature was considered “feminine reading,” and nonfiction prose “masculine reading.” Traces of that distinction linger today, and women do, still, read literature much more than men. About 50 percent of young women read at least one work of literature in a year’s time, while barely one-third of young men do.
But in the traditionally masculine areas, women are starting to beat men as well. In the National Endowment for the Arts survey Reading at Risk (2002), 59 percent of 18-24-year-old read at least one book of any kind in the preceding year, while only 43 percent of men the same age did so. Much of that was literature, yes, but ten years earlier, the gender gap was only 8 points, not 16 points (63 percent to 55 percent). Certainly, literature alone doesn’t account for that doubling of the gender gap.Continue reading "Boys and Girls"
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Literature in Public
With the recent discussion here and elsewhere on the decline of literature departments, we might add some information about literature and books in public life.
From 1982 to 2002, the percentage of 18-24-year-olds reading literature fell 17 percentage points, from 60 percent to 43 percent. From 1992 to 2002, the percentage reading books of any kind fell from 59 percent to 51 percent. (National Endowment for the Arts)
On an average day, a 15-24-year-old devotes only 8 minutes of leisure time to reading. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
On an average day, 0-6-year-olds spend about 40 minutes with a book. They spend close to 2 hours in front of a screen. (Kaiser Foundation)
On an average day, an 8-18-year-old logs eight-and-one-half hours with media. This takes place in only six-and-one-half hours of time. (Kaiser Foundation)
From 2000 to 2002, consumer expenditures on reading fell nearly 5 percent. At the same time, income rose around 10 percent, and spending on “Entertainment” rose around 11 percent. (U.S. Department of Labor)
In 2002-03, unit sales of books fell by 23 million. In 2003-04, they fell by nearly 44 million. (Book Industry Study Group)
One could add to these numbers the loss of book review pages in newspapers, The Atlantic’s decision to drop fiction in its monthly magazine, the fact that Amazon last November sold more electronics than books, the fact that literature provides less than 20 percent of revenue for Barnes & Noble, and the decline in pages read in high school English classes.
That literary culture is deteriorating at a time of proliferating screen and digital diversion is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how little humanities professors have noticed and responded.
Saturday, April 30, 2005
This may be a dead issue, but a few weeks ago, another blog raised questions about the backing of The Valve by the ALSC, and the latter’s backing by Bradley Foundation. In such cases, it is important to have all the facts in place before judging the compromises that such connections putatively entail. In Bradley’s case, which of the following recently accepted Bradley funding: UCLA, Berkeley, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Wisconsin, NYU, and UVA? Answer: all of them. And which literary organization lists members who write regularly for left-of-center periodicals such as New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s, and Dissent? Yes, the ALSC.
Sometimes, a few isolated facts can, at the least, complicate myths that have grown up around certain writers. A few indications:
1. Why was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass banned?
2. When W. E. B. Du Bois filed suit against Southern Railway for denying him a sleeping car berth, who paid his legal expenses?
3. A few years before being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and being martyred as one of the Hollywood Ten, what did Dalton Trumbo volunteer for the FBI (at his instigation)?
4. Which of the following persons signed an anti-war letter in 1939 that stated, “Our entry into the war, under the slogan of ‘Stop Hitler!’ would actually result in the immediate introduction of totalitarianism over here. Only the German people can free themselves of the fascist yoke”: V.F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Clement Greenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Delmore Schwartz, William Carlos Williams?
5. What prompted J-P Sartre to equate the U.S. with Nazi Germany?
6. What was Michel Foucault’s first reaction to the fundamentalist revolution in Iran?
7. What does Virgil have to do with the $1 bill?
1. The references to prostitution and venereal disease (nobody worried about the homoeroticism).
2. Booker T. Washington, on the sly.
3. The names and addresses of pacifists who had written to him asking about his novel Johnny Got His Gun.
4. All of them.
5. The execution of two Soviet spies.
7. Look beneath the pyramid.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
literary down, information up
A lot of college English teachers complain about their students being poor readers of literature. Undergrads might know some of the technical terms of analysis (metaphor. etc.), but they can’t put them together into a comprehensive, coherent interpretation of a literary work. Added to that, teachers note, they just don’t see the point of (or get any pleasure from) analyzing a poem or narrative.
One reason for the problem may stem from a trend in the high school English classroom, one that professors should heed. It is the rise of “informational text” on the syllabus. More and more class time is being devoted to journalistic and business discourse, and less time to novels and poems. Here is what Achieve Inc. recommended to the National Assessment Governing Board in February regarding the composition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. A panel of experts advised that the Board “increase the percentage of informational text from 60 to 70 percent on NAEP to acknowledge the heavy presence of informational text in the educational experience of high school students.” The panel did claim that this increase “should not threaten the centrality of literary studies in the English language arts classroom,” but the pattern in curricula these days is that whatever appears on the test gets the most attention. Furthermore, the fact that the panel even mentioned a threat suggests that the possibility is open.
The motives behind the shift to informational text are noble. Colleges and businesses find that high school graduates increasingly lack basic reading and writing skills. Simply as a matter of preparedness and workforce development, informational texts make stronger claims upon U.S. students and workers than do the couplets of Dryden. But before we let literature slide to a lesser place in the curriculum, college teachers should take note and ask whether there is another kind of skill literary reading inculcates that informational reading does not, and that in an economy putatively drifting toward more creative, flexible workplaces, literature may, in fact, be a better preparation than business communication.