Let's Teach TV! ( or Why EastEnders Is Now as Important as Charles Dickens ); as College Courses in Beckham and Soap Operas Are Called for, Here an Academic Argues There's No Shame in Popular Culture
Sutherland, John, The Evening Standard (London, England)
Byline: JOHN SUTHERLAND
PERHAPS it's no coincidence that, as we bid farewell to another bunch of inane Big Brother housemates and welcome into our homes those lascivious New York girls for a new series of Sex and the City, our academics are beginning to notice that some seismic cultural shifts may warrant a rethink of the way we educate our youth.
Professor Leslie Wagner opened a can of interesting worms last weekend with his suggestion that the university course of the future should feature qualifications in EastEnders, Reality TV and even "Beckology" (David Beckham studies, that is). Cultural values and personal relations, he argues, are better analysed through modern film, television and celebrity than by poring over Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
Professor Wagner heads a government committee looking into enlarging access to higher education. If he goes on like this, he'll probably succeed.
In the process he may well induce a nervous breakdown in writers such as Melanie Phillips - not to say some stern words from Charles Clarke and other educational traditionalists.
Underlying the provocative Wagnerian agenda is the burning question: should we be ashamed of what we actually consume, culturally, as opposed to what our conscience, or our mentors, tell us we "should" consume?
If I (as I confess I do) watch The Sopranos addictively, seize on any copies of Hello! magazine I see lying around, furtively sneak into a first-night screening of X-Men 2, and actually buy Jeffrey Archer's novels in hardback, is it equivalent to secret drinking or visiting ladies of easy virtue in the afternoon? Am I wasting my intellectual substance or, in some oblique way, improving my mind?
There is a defence of cultural bottomfeeding, but it's not easy to put into words. One doesn't, for example, keep up with Tony Soprano through four long series (faithfully downloading the synopses and credits from the Web) primarily to learn more about the sociology of an American ethnic subgroup in the final painful stages of assimilation, or the failure of urban renewal in New Jersey.
Nonetheless, one does learn from it. The Sopranos, brilliantly conceived by David Chase (born "Cesare"), captures, in all its ambivalence, the American confusion about power. Americans love winners. Winning is good.
Organised crime is a winner. Tony is therefore a good man - or is he a bad man? Nor is the issue of American power something of minor importance. Look at the front pages of today's newspapers.
IF, as I do, you spend half your year in southern California, The Shield is unmissable because it depicts, so precisely, that peculiarly brutal Los Angeles code of police enforcement (elsewhere depicted in the current hit film, Dark Blue). The LAPD, despite its motto ("Serve and Protect"), believes that society's best defence against the bad guys is assault. Kick first, question later. It's a creed that it inherited from its patriarch, Chief William H Parker, in the 1940s. It was tested to destruction in the Rodney King riots, but lives on in the trials of Curtis "Lemonhead" Lemansky. Is he a criminal or a crime-fighter? Is George W Bush - with his preemptive strikes against terror - the saviour of Western civilisation or a war criminal?
As a general rule, popular culture does not transfer happily from the street to the academy or the museum. …