Posts by Mark Bauerlein
December 1, 2009, 07:00 AM ET
On the 2001 NAEP US history exam for 12th graders was a question about which of four nations was the ally of the United States in World War II. It turned out that 52 percent of test takers chose Germany, Italy, or Japan, not the fourth option, the Soviet Union.
How could they get it wrong? Everyone studies World War II in high school, and World War II appears in movies, TV shows, and popular books and games all the time.
The reason stems in part, I think, to the firm division adolescents make between school subjects and leisure interests. U.S history is a classroom activity, they believe -- both the top students, the "overachievers," and the bottom students, the dropouts. It has no meaning to them personally. They study it for the text and the paper, to get the grade and increase the score, that's all.
What happens is that when the class is over, they forget what they've learned. Why...Read More
November 28, 2009, 09:00 PM ET
For a few years now, a recurring concern has been the widening gap between boys and girls at the college level. With girls making up around 58 percent of the undergrad population, college-admissions offices are scrambling (see here), and the U.S Commission on Civil Rights is investigating whether colleges are practicing affirmative action for boys to keep the entering classes from reaching the critical 60-40 imbalance that puts the "operational sex ratio" out of whack (see here, and also this).
Much of the problem isn't an in-school issue. Yes, girls do more homework and take more AP classes, but a more fundamental factor in the problem may stem from leisure habits, particularly reading time. Indeed, leisure reading trends play a huge role in academic achievement (see this U.S. Dept of Ed report). Kids who don't enjoy reading on their own time don't do as well in school....Read More
November 24, 2009, 06:31 AM ET
With college campuses becoming ever more preprofessional and vocational, it's getting harder for humanities teachers to get freshmen and sophomores to appreciate the aesthetic side of things. That goes for both their interpretation of texts and for their creation of texts. They read everything for the kernal of fact and value, the information, the point, not for the expression (whether beautiful or vulgar or flat or conventional . . .). And they write sentences that have no flair, no element of balance, rhythm, metaphor, or other aesthetic feature.
And why shouldn't they? When so much of the liberal-arts curriculum has turned toward "informational text" -- the NAEP reading exams for 12th Graders now have 70 percent of their passages as informational, 20 percent fiction, 5 percent verse, and 5 percent literary essay -- students understand their own work in the same terms.
This makes...Read More
November 21, 2009, 05:00 PM ET
My father heard the news from a guy in the next office. He was a graduate student in math at Berkeley, and his neighbor stepped inside the door and said, "Well, that's it -- that's the second one they've killled for pushing civil rights."
The assassination had just happened, information was sketchy, but for this fellow the narrative was already complete.
On the plane from Dallas to Washington, Mrs. Kennedy used the same pronoun. When Lady Bird Johnson urged her to change out of her bloody clothing, she replied, "No, I want them to see what they have done."
"Who, exactly, were 'they'? And what did 'they' do?"
Those questions are posed by James Piereson in a great study of the assassination and its aftermath entitled Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. He answers by citing James Reston, distinguished columnist in ...Read More
November 19, 2009, 10:17 AM ET
I was sitting in the Fargo airport awhile back, and there was Glenn Beck talking with David Horowitz about Jimmy Carter. People were watching, some smiling and some grim. I couldn't tell whether they agreed with Beck or not, but they paid attention. He's a gadfly.
Gadflies prosper in particular circumstances. They gather fans when elements of public life strike enough people as strange, perverse, or just plain wrong, but those people don't feel that they have the access or the influence to change them. Gadflies arise when prominent figures are aggrandized into figureheads, when dubious ideas expand into right-thinking wisdom, or when insulated groups perceived as "elites" seem unaccountable to democratic processes.
For Beck's supporters, the last six months are a case in point. They regard Obama's popularity as an irritating phenomenon -- not the fact that people like him and his...Read More
November 16, 2009, 06:00 PM ET
The MLA Newsletter has a helpful but depressing count of jobs listed this year in languages and literature. According to the numbers, the drop in job opportunities from 07-08 to 08-09 was 24.4 percent in English and 27 percent in foreign languages.
In total numbers, the MLA Job Information List this year had 1,380 jobs in English and 1,227 in foreign languages. A full analysis of the figures appears in this MLA report by David Laurence, research director at the MLA.
Traditionally defined jobs in English literature (not American or Anglophone lit, or drama) look especially meager. The MLA report lists 362 ads in all fields of "British Literature," down from 499 in 2000-01. I went through the print copy of the October MLA Job List several days ago and did a quick informal and unscientific count. I came up with this tally of jobs that explcitly foreground historical definitions:...Read More
November 12, 2009, 10:00 AM ET
Literary study is in terrible shape, as everyone knows. The language and literature majors are down, the job market in English looks terrible this year (see this), and unit sales of a literary monograph are lucky to reach 400 copies. Also, the insularity of the perspectives and approaches, not to mention the boggy prose, makes the reading of them a wearisome exercise.
But there are great exceptions, and here are three.
Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is an entertaining and sophisticated ramble through the books, films, music, and ideas of the 1930s. It doesn't do tight interpretations, and there is no grand thesis or theory in play. Rather, it's an engaging commentary on Bing Crosby, Tess Slesinger, screwball comedy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc. Here's a paragraph on Citizen Kane:
"Films like My Man Godfrey, Easy Living, and...Read More
November 10, 2009, 01:00 PM ET
Two weeks ago, the Audit Bureau of Circulation released figures for average daily circulation of newspapers in the United States. (See stories here and here.) For every large daily except The Wall Street Journal, the trend is abysmal.
Here's what happened to paid circulation from April-May 2008 to April-May 2009:
Wall Street Journal + 0.6 percent
USA Today - 17.2 percent
New York Times - 7.3 percent
Los Angeles Times - 11.1 percent
Washington Post - 6.4 percent
Chicago Tribune - 9.7 percent
New York Post - 18.8 percent
Houston Chronicle - 14.2 percent
For average weekday circulation of all 379 daily papers included, weekday circulation plummeted 10.6 percent. Also, the rate of decline from last year to this ...Read More
November 5, 2009, 08:00 AM ET
Two stories in The Wall Street Journal today deserve note. The first one explores the results in Virginia, where the governor's race swung well toward the Republican candidate. One paragraph offers a sober warning to people who have made the Millennial Generation into a hyper-civically-engaged, heavy-voting, liberal-leaning age cohort. It says:
"Voters ages 18 to 29, who made up more than one in five of the 2008 electorate in Virginia and voted overwhelmingly for the president, were just 10 percent of voters there Tuesday; those who went to the polls backed the Republican, Bob McDonnell, by a wide margin."
The second one is a column by Daniel Henninger, and it opens with a nice summation of voter attitudes toward political parties:
"You will recall how when the tea-party movement erupted during the congressional recess in August, it was spun on the left that these events were the...Read More
November 3, 2009, 07:00 AM ET
Back in August 2006, AOL released data on some 35 million search queries and 20 million "clickthroughs." One thing they showed was just how important it is to be in the top spot in any Google search. (See here for background on the release, and here for AOL's apology.)
A breakdown of the popularity of sites that come up in a search reveals a steep downward curve from number 1 onward (see chart here).
The top Web site received 42 percent of all clickthroughs.
Number 2 dropped to 12 percent.
Number 3 dropped to 8.4 percent.
By number 10, we're at 3 percent.
And for the entire second page of search results we're at 10 percent.
What this means is that the vast majority of Google searches are satisfied with the the first four or five entries that come up.
It also means that for anyone and any business building a Web site, one factor stands out above all. How do you get to the top...Read More