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Television isn't to blame for America's cultural decline

The Baltimore Sun

My wife recently got hold of an old issue of Glamour magazine. Leafing through it, she was amused by the girdle ads and other relics of a bygone era. Suddenly, she turned serious. Handing me the magazine, she asked me to read one page. It was a listing of recommended television viewing for the month.

I was stunned by what I saw. Here were some of the recommended TV programs for October 1959: Startime with Ingrid Bergman and Alec Guinness; Armstrong Circle Theater (original drama); Bell Telephone Hour (classical music); The Moon and Sixpence, adapted from W. Somerset Maugham, with Laurence Olivier; Beethoven's Fidelio (NBC Opera); A Doll's House by Ibsen; The Killers by Ernest Hemingway; Young People's Concert with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic; and Shakespeare's The Tempest.

My memory jogged, I recalled seeing the great documentaries of Edward R. Murrow, the NBC Symphony with Arturo Toscanini, a new ballet by Igor Stravinsky, The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill, and the debut of a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein - all in the 1950s or early 1960s, and all on network television, the medium so often blamed by intellectuals for the decline of American cultural life.

Such a concentration of quality would be unimaginable today, even with our 100-plus channels. Some might point out that all the above represented high culture, and that television in those days must have had its share of mindless rubbish. Yes, there was mediocrity - but the average level of quality was higher, and the level of vulgarity much lower. As for high culture, remember that these recommendations appeared in Glamour - hardly an egghead publication. And such programs were watched regularly by my working-class family.

The entertainment industry gives us what it thinks we want, or are equipped to handle. So does television news, which is a shadow of what it used to be. Ditto for certain newsweeklies, reduced in large part to a plethora of ads, pop culture, gossip and other trivia. Not to mention the celebrity-centered magazines and tabloids that are more ubiquitous than ever.

Is it a sin to be well-rounded these days? Far too many people are ignorant of geography and history. As a professor, I have been informed by students that Barcelona was in Switzerland and Franklin Roosevelt was a president of the 19th century. Art and music languish in our schools, with predictable results. Since when is it considered uncool to be a cultured person? Are we ashamed to show knowledge and sophistication? When did we set the bar so low? Let me offer my hunch.

It all started with the campus revolutionaries of the 1960s. I remember the boorish loudmouths who chucked marshmallows, issued non-negotiable demands and raised narcissism to an art. With the compliance of cowed administrators and faculty, those ersatz Maoists took a chain saw to a rigorous curriculum and undermined the integrity of the grading system.

Perhaps the worst damage was inflicted by their holy war against what they called elitism. In their reasoning, people were all created equal, and it was undemocratic to recognize individual distinction. According to this faux egalitarianism, to extol the excellence of one person was to somehow denigrate all the others. Besides, most everything taught in school was "irrelevant" anyway. Eventually, the campus Jacobins graduated, traded their denim uniforms for business attire and joined the hated establishment.

In imposing their brand of vulgarity, which was reflected in the media and then absorbed by society at large, they left a debased culture in their wake. In time, many colleges restored some semblance of rigor. However, it was all downhill for our society's cultural standards.

There has always been an anti-intellectual streak in America, but this is not about "deep thinking." It is about a refusal to display the dignity and discrimination of a true adult - or what used to be considered an adult.

Alan Rosenthal is associate professor emeritus of modern languages and linguistics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His e-mail is rosentha@umbc.edu.

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