It's the Culture, Stupid; So Confirm Dana Gioia as Chairman of the NEA

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

It's the Culture, Stupid; So Confirm Dana Gioia as Chairman of the NEA


Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"It's the culture, stupid."

This isn't quite the call to arms that Bill Clinton's rallying cry for the economy was in '92, but it reflects a strong craving in America to bring back respect for the humanities and the arts, to create a greater understanding for the way cultural forms inform how we think about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's powerful politics.

This craving has accelerated since Laura the librarian moved into the White House. Her emphasis on the necessity for children to grow up reading - and her exhortations to parents to read aloud to their children - is not academic. It's a necessity. We live in a world bombarded with visual imagery on tube and computer, relying heavily on colorful shortcuts to the imagination through the sound and fury of sensational images. There's no turning back the technology.

But we've got to be careful that an appreciation for language is not limited to the quick-fix(ated) jargon of the keyboard, screen, camera or blogger. Our great English language deserves better than the relentless abuse it routinely suffers.

During the holidays, a reader of the New York Times, writing on the op-ed page under the headline "A Lost Eloquence," told how she grew up listening to her mother recite poetry from memory. Her mother, age 85, grew up on the plains of North Dakota, and was required to memorize whole poems and famous addresses. That tradition lived on in most of our public schools through the 1950s. Is there anyone of a certain age who doesn't remember having to stand in front of the class to recite "O Captain, My Captain," "The Gettysburg Address" or even the 23rd Psalm (a taboo today)?

Such rote learning was dropped from the curriculum in the following decades, criticized by whole generations of teachers - and those training them - as empty and stilted exercises emphasizing process over substance. The notion that such language, when it was internalized, helped a child hear rhythms and cadences that can only be felt when spoken out loud, was abandoned. We dumped the process and with it much of the substance. Children today memorize rock and rap lyrics instead of the rich cadences of Whitman, of Lincoln and of the King James Version of the Bible. Idiosyncratic idioms of a vulgar pop culture triumph over the eloquence of yesterday.

That's too bad, since young people will always have access to the pop culture, but it's ever more difficult to teach them to revere the roots of their native tongue. Most contemporary poetry feels inaccessible to most readers today. …

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