Ideas to Shake Up Education Outspoken Professor Camille Paglia Advocates Radical Reform - a Return to Conservatism

By Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 8, 1991 | Go to article overview

Ideas to Shake Up Education Outspoken Professor Camille Paglia Advocates Radical Reform - a Return to Conservatism


Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


PICK up an article by Camille Paglia, attend one of her lectures, or just sit across a table and have a conversation with her, and the topic of sex will come up - imaginative, arcane, pagan, sizzling sex. Count on it. The subject infuses her thought like histrionics in a Puccini opera.

Next on on her list of priorities, however, (and more suitable for a family newspaper) is education reform. From kindergarten through postdoctoral studies, she rails against what ails the current state of scholarship. "I am the '60s come back to haunt the '90s," she says. She challenges current liberal orthodoxies in teaching art, religion, teacher preparation, and women's studies.

Following a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., on reforms in academia, which she performed as much as delivered, Ms. Paglia spoke with the Monitor, zeroing in on her views about education. Petite in stature, fiery in delivery, she is a fervent believer in classical education, scholarly academic standards, and rigorous discipline. Contrastingly, and this is a woman of contrasts, she revels in pop culture and places rock-and-roll and cinema at the pinnacle of Western civilization for this century.

Never in the mainstream academically, Paglia (pronounced PAHlia) is a professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelpia. Her book "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," is on the threshold of a breakout, a must read on college campuses. Vintage Books bought the paperback rights from Yale University Press. Sales are brisk.

Identifying herself as an anti-feminist feminist, she is widely recognized as the leading critic of the way Women's Studies programs are taught. If she had her way, she would end such programs as presently constituted, she says.

"Homer is flourishing in 700 BC. The idea that in the last 20 years feminism has made some radical changes in human nature is absurd," she says. One of her quips wryly posits, "Leaving women's studies to the feminists is like leaving your dog at the taxidermist's," followed by, "Gender on campus has become a code word for social prussianism."

When asked to appear on the Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey shows to debate feminist issues with other authors, Paglia couched her refusal with typical chutzpah: "Would Caruso appear on the same stage as Tiny Tim?" she said.

Her students come from low-income, minority backgrounds. Daily, she sees the "very bad consequences of America's two-tier education system," where the few are educated well and the rest poorly, she says.

"Schools must be the preservers of the rational, Apollonian, logo-centric tradition," she says, characteristically compressing three great, Western intellectual traditions into one sentence. "My own writing style is influenced by rock music," she says. "It goes wham, bam." Hence the machine-gun tempo of her speaking.

Children bring unformed, irrational minds with them when they first walk through the schoolhouse door, says Paglia. What is needed, especially given the sensory barrage of electronic media in American society today - Dionysian energy as she would categorize it - is for schools to go back to the mastery of facts. "Rote learning has a bad press," she says.

She agrees with Neil Postman, author, educator, and media critic, that schools should not appeal to the television needs of students by being "television friendly." "Children are produced by televison," she says. It feeds the Dionysian side of the mind where emotive, impulsive appetites in human nature reside. …

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