Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Education I: The Decline of the English Department

The terminal you're using to read this should be enough to convince you that we live in an Information and Leisure Era. We have much more time than any previous generation to spend on our favorite pastime: "processing information", which is a fancy way of saying entertaining ourselves with phones, parties, movies, television or the internet. Being artists, let's concentrate on the latter three media.

Consider technological democratization: two generations ago there were less than a handful of television networks. Pilot programs had to compete against studios producing shows like "The Mary Tyler Show" with million dollar casts and equipment. Television was plutocratic, if only because the costs of production precluded entry by smaller participants.

Today there are thousands of networks, few of which have the advertising revenue to support ambitious projects. Even the largest broadcasting concerns are hyping cheap "reality" shows. The odds are now stacked against the expensive studios and in favor of the talented individual. Anyone with a cell phone camera and a modern microphone can produce videos with sound and resolution superior not only to "The Mary Tyler Show" but to what most televisions can support. The History channel is crying for new documentaries from anybody who knows the URL of a digitized archive and can use a freeware video editor. In short, there are myriad new media and venues along with infinite uses for them; the only things lacking are interesting conceits and the paltry time it takes--often expressed in minutes--to learn and practice techniques as rudimentary as cutting and pasting.

It follows logically that this must be the Golden Age of Art. Universities must be flooded with applicants. Instructors must be taking that one last step between the Ivory Tower and the public by teaching students the fundamentals of presenting their thoughts to the public: marketing, grammar, editing text and video, photography and filming, multimedia, etc. Surely getting an Arts degree requires the basics of serving an audience, right?

Well, not so much.

Please take the time to read William M. Chace's illumination of academia, "The Decline of the English Department - How it happened and what could be done to reverse it". Few accounts of the status quo are as comprehensive and comprehensible as this effort.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't overlook how, even in the "what could be done to reverse it" section, Mr. Chace never mentions the utimate goal of art: entertaining an audience. How many of his concerns would disappear if the arts community, in and out of school, were to focus on its own raison d'ĂȘtre? How much more successful would graduates be if they were taught the practical skills of presentation? Mr. Chace does mention the need for proper grammar, but must we set the bar so low that it could be cleared by an earthworm in street shoes? How about a practicum, such that poets and even actors don't graduate with MFAs without having faced a public audience? How about teaching researchers the basics of databasing? How about markets? Innovation? Technology? Software?

What happened to imagination? Are we doomed to produce yet another generation whose ambition is limited to either teaching or, for the other 97%, sending out oft-rejected manuscripts and proposals while working at McD's? This, while thousands of TV networks and billions of YouTube viewers are starved for novelties?

For which century are we preparing our students?

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