A social critic, teacher and iconoclast, Camille Paglia has been provoking if not outraging people for years. As a self-described libertarian democrat, she defies easy categorization. She is an atheist who has blasted fellow atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, and a lesbian who takes aim at feminism and political correctness.
Ms. Paglia is widely known as the author of Sexual Personae and other influential books, the most recent being Break, Blow, Burn, a study of 43 great poems. Now at work on a sequel about the visual arts, she also teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia but is in Toronto today for a sold-out appearance as part of the Open House Festival, a global gathering of writers and thinker (sponsored by The Globe and Mail) in support of PEN Canada, Frontier College and the Toronto Public Library Foundation.
Her topic is education and what's wrong with it - and this week she explained to Globe columnist Margaret Wente why the education industry is desperately in need of reform.
You've been arguing for years that we have wrecked the universities. How so?
Back in the 1960s , I got a superb education for very little money. The bill for my first year at Harpur College in New York was a few hundred dollars. My teachers still believed in the importance of the humanities and the arts. They weren't trying to demolish them. When I went into graduate school at Yale, the professors of poetry were the leading lights on campus. Can you imagine anything comparable today?
Art history survey courses are in the verge of extinction. Teachers have no sense that they are supposed to inculcate a sense of appreciation and respect and awe at the greatness of what these artists have done in the past. The entire purpose of higher education is broadening. But since then we've witnessed the fragmentation and trivialization of the curriculum.
Postmodernism, poststructuralism, multiculturalism. Postmodernism and poststructuralism don't go in for the long view. They believe the whole narrative of history is a fiction. They just specialize in one narrow area. I am 100-per-cent in favour of multiculturalism. However, I am also in favour of the scholarship that must underlie a true multiculturalism. My opponents' idea of multiculturalism is a dib and a dab, a dib and a dab - let's create women's studies, gay studies, African-American studies - we have these little insular programs. You have to be a card-carrying member of the project to be employed there. And we've wound up with these outmoded fiefdoms of institutional power.
So what's the correct model in your view?
I've always felt that the obligation of teachers is to have a huge, broad overview and to provide a foundation course to the students. The long view of history is absolutely crucial. There are long patterns of history. Civilizations rose and fell, and guess what! It's not a fiction. I believe in chronology and I believe it's our obligation to teach it. I've met fundamentalist Protestants who've just come out of high school and read the Bible. They have a longer view of history than most students who come out of Harvard. The problem today is that professors feel they are far too sophisticated and important to do something as mundane as teach a foundation course. So what the heck are parents paying all this money for?
Are you saying that we should just dial the clock back to 1958 and bring back the great books, the old masters and the dead white males?
That is not what I say. I want world culture taught. I believe in Hollywood and jazz. Those are America's great contributions to the world. But I don't want this ideology that the West is the great rapist of the world. The Western art tradition is incredible. Then feminism came along and decided greatness was a conspiracy foisted on us by men. People would criticize me by saying, "She's writing about Michelangelo when the really important person was this woman...." But wait. There's no way she came up to Michelangelo's ankle. So what we're getting now is people who never heard of Michelangelo or Leonardo because they are dead white males. They think it's better to read minor works by African-American or Caribbean writers than the great literature of the world.
It's a landscape of death in the humanities right now. Humanities professors have destroyed their field. They talk about the funding cuts, the budget crisis, no jobs. But who did it? They did it! They made themselves marginal in the face of this great material - they've driven their clientele away. They committed hara-kiri.
Do you have any impression of the landscape in Canada right now?
I'm not that familiar with Canada. But when I was at York University a few years ago, I thought, "Oh my god, they are so shallow. Such a backwater."
I'm interested in what you think of the impact of technology on kids. How are they going to absorb the lessons of art and history and literature in any serious way when they're all surfing the Net?
I was the first to advocate the Web. But I am very troubled by this thing that every kid must have a laptop computer. The kids are totally in the computer age. There's a whole new brain operation that's being moulded by the computer. But educators shouldn't be following what the students are doing. Educators need to analyze the culture and figure out what's missing in the culture and then supply it. Students find books onerous. But I still believe that the great compendium of knowledge is contained in books.
What worries me about the Web is the total inability of students to assess whether something is solid, dubious, or whether it's a joke or a scam. People who've worked with books have the ability to do that. What's scary is people have lost the ability to do research. They think the whole world has moved to the computer. I love the Web, but the basis of my work is going through the physical books. When you go to the library, you see other books around on the shelves that you never knew existed. You can flip through a book and see the whole outline of it.
But in education today - even in primary-school education - all we hear about is "critical thinking." All the facts are available on the Web, and everybody has a calculator. So why make kids memorize the times tables or the names of the biggest rivers in Canada?
"Critical thinking" sounds great. But it's a Marxist approach to culture. It's just slapping a liberal leftist ideology on everything you do. You just find all the ways that power has defrauded or defamed or destroyed. It's a pat formula that's very thin. At the primary level, what kids need is facts. They need geography, chronology, geology. I'm a huge believer in geology - it's all about engagement in physical materials and the history of the world.
But instead of that, the kids get ideology. They're taught that global warming has been caused by factories. They have no idea there's been climate change throughout history. And they're scared into thinking that tsunamis are coming to drown New York.
This whole thing about global warming - I am absolutely incredulous at the gullibility of people. What is this hysteria over drowning polar bears? And finally I realized, people don't know polar bears can swim! For me, the answer is always more facts, more basic information, presented without sentimentality and without drama. To inflict this kind of anxiety on young people is an outrage.
Well, but don't forget that we had the Russians and the atom bomb. We were taught to duck and cover.
It is a bit like duck and cover. You see a flash, you get under your desk. That was ridiculous. But there was more reality to it.