There’s a T-shirt I’ve seen that reads: “Theater is life. Film is art. Television is furniture.”
It came to mind last week when The New York Times reported the sickening news that with the help of a $5 million gift from television producer Norman Lear, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California is launching an interdisciplinary program for the study of popular entertainment.
Funny money is nothing new in universities. But this particular gift, from a media mogul who has a great stake in how much TV young people watch, happens to come at a time of a disturbing trend in academia: the triumph of pop culture.
Television studies is all the rage among scholars these days. William Irwin, a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania, has just published a book on the subject that may be enough to raise Allan Bloom from the grave. Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing is a collection of essays by mostly third-rate philosophers from mostly substandard institutions—a fact that should come as no surprise.
Their argument? Jerry Seinfeld is Socratic because he “provokes his friends and his audience by bringing to mind subjects to which they would not ordinarily give much thought.” Forget that Socrates was defining the good life and Jerry is babbling about bubkes. Meanwhile, Kramer embodies Nietzsche’s eternal return because he’s always making the same mistakes over and over again.
In these heady days of the imbecilic Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, one can’t help but be reminded of the scandal that erupted in the ’50s over the game show Twenty-One. When it was revealed that the seemingly omniscient Charles Van Doren was cheating, the nation was collectively as ashamed as Van Doren’s father, the famous Columbia literature professor Mark Van Doren. The lesson to be learned, it seemed, was that there are no shortcuts to knowledge. “Smart” television was no substitute for book learning. Back then scholarship and entertainment were safely segregated. Not so anymore.
It’s fitting that Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School, is the son of Louis G. Cowan, onetime president of CBS and creator of that other beloved ’50s quiz show, The $64,000 Question. Martin Kaplan, meanwhile—the assistant dean of the Annenberg School—is a former Disney studio executive and screenwriter.
Ironic, then, the arrival of Bill Bennett’s latest book, The Educated Child, which tells parents how to ensure that their kids get a real education in primary school and don’t melt their minds in front of the TV. But, of course, with the advent of programs like the one at USC, what parents are striving to do for their kids in elementary school is being systematically undone in college.
And it’s not just television studies that’s to blame. Ever since Greil Marcus made it hip to edify rock and roll, courses in and monographs on pop culture have sprouted like weeds in the academy. From the Sex Pistols to The Simpsons, from hip-hop to porn, from cyborgs to sex toys, low culture is infiltrating the scholarly world, a curriculum of aptly “higher” learning in which shallow amusements have no place.
This dumbing down of the academy is the ultimate capitulation to the MTV mind. Our cultural narcissism has reached such heights that, far from exposing us to the expanse of world culture, the university is becoming more and more bounded in the nutshell of our puttied brains. The learning process is no longer a Toynbee spiral moving ever up and outward, but a vortex of concentric circles orbiting the pusillanimous self. Television studies is the perfect postmodern project—us watching ourselves watching ourselves. It’s couch potatodom writ large.
Pop culture, or course, can be great fun. It is one of the purest forms of free expression we have, one whose preservation and growth we should encourage. But just as Milton doesn’t belong in the rave scene, sitcoms don’t belong in the canon or the classroom.
At the end of Wallace Shawn’s apocalyptic play The Designated Mourner, all the intellectuals have been tortured to death by a junta. The last unctuous numskull to survive the reign of terror, a disaffected Ph.D. whose only joy is poring over sex magazines, gets up from his armchair, puts a book of poetry in his bathtub, and shits on it. His last damning words to civilization? “I guess I’ve always really been a lowbrow at heart.”
Norah Vincent’s column on academia will appear every other week.