Magazine article Insight on the News

Devolving Culture Hooked on Ebonics

Magazine article Insight on the News

Devolving Culture Hooked on Ebonics

Article excerpt

We hardly require a prophet to decry the debasement of the nation's cultural and intellectual life. We need only turn on the television or read newspapers to see how our schools are failing and do the decrying ourselves.

The evidence is variation on a theme identified three decades ago by Dwight Macdonald, a trenchant social critic of his time, who identified the suffering from sensibilities summed up by the words "masscult and midcult."

Masscult referred to the commercialization of everything. Titillation was filtered through pretentious, glossy pictures in trendy magazines slouching toward the electronic age.

Midcult was watered-down high culture, which pretended to be fine art but merely vulgarized the good stuff. Ernest Hemingway was hung out to dry in the salt air for writing The Old Man and the Sea, a frothy story that suggested significance but was little more than a shaggy fish story, written for quick bucks by an aging author who knew better but wanted to cash in while he could.

Andy Warhol got the message quickly and made fun of masscult and midcult, turning his talent for painting billboards into witty pop art depicting commercial images -- the Campbell's soup can and the Brillo box. He similarly was clever with depictions of female icons such as Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. He sold his wares for high prices in fashionable art galleries and entered high society, if not the realms of high art.

Truman Capote frittered away his literary talent writing gossip. Norman Mailer failed to create anything with the power of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead but instead dashed off egotistical magazine features and saved the best of what was left of his literary skills for vanity journalism and half-baked politics.

But at least the cultural critics thought there was hope that we could turn things around by maintaining rock-bottom standards for education. We were not yet numbed by the politically correct thinking that would make masscult sound elitist.

Public-school education still was a wondrous experiment offering the new immigrant -- and anyone else -- a way up according to strict standards of learning. Colleges maintained stringent requirements so that a graduate could be expected to understand the great books, if not necessarily be able to write them. …

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