I started reading this book a year and a half ago. I'm not kidding. This is a book best taken in small chunks; otherwise, it gets a bit tedious. But it was still a brilliant read, for all that I had to go slowly.
A quick synopsis: David Denby returned to Columbia University for one year in 1991 to go through the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization courses, two of the core curriculum courses that had come under fire for their hegemonic view of the past. He wanted to remember what all the fuss was about, so he re-enrolled. The book, all 463 pages of it, is the story of his experience with the texts and with students 30 years his junior (thank goodness I'm not that much older than my peers at UT).
From beginning to end, this book made me want to read the texts that he read. Mostly. Mr. Denby is a good storyteller, and he does a great job of making the readings, and the class discussions thus provoked, come to life. Perhaps I will go through the reading list one of these days, after I finish with my still overly-long to-read list (currently holding steady at 145 books, since I keep finding more that I want to read).
But that's not what made me want to blog. No, I'm actually not quite finished, because I got to the epilogue and was so struck by the first paragraph that I had to write about it. Mr. Denby says, "American students rarely arrive at college as habitual readers, which means that few of them have more than a nominal connection to the past ... For there is only one "hegemonic discourse" in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media." I probably could have skipped straight to the end and still overwhelmingly agreed with this point. And this was 20 years ago! Apart from Harry Potter, which hardly fits into the the canon of the great books that have shaped our culture (yet), things have not changed since 1991.
And here I thought I was on a break from blogging about college. The last day of my Creative Problem Solving class (yes, the one that annoyed me), the prof was taking the class' temperature regarding the required readings. At one point, he commented, "Your generation just doesn't like reading history", to a chorus of agreement from the class. He went on to speculate aloud that perhaps he should drop the more historical readings from the text, and I wanted to shout, "No!" Because I don't think that readings should be dropped just because the students liked them less than other readings. If it were time constraints, or a complete change of material, sure. But "these readings were boring!"? No. Not a valid reason (especially since we're talking about a chapter each; they weren't long readings).
I probably sound like a much older person saying that, but hey. It's where I am, I suppose. But I do despair a bit for our future, since reading is so unappealing to the next generation and history is relegated to the closet of dullness-- where do we go from here?
What do you think?