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Books do furnish a mind

My friend Bill Nack and I sat in the coffee shop of the student union and chortled like escape artists. We couldn't believe our good luck. You could actually get a university degree just by reading books and writing about them! Students in other majors had to, you know, actually study. I make it sound too easy, and I sweated some exams, but now in my autumnal glow those undergraduate years are bathed in wistful nostalgia. My image is of myself walking down the quadrangle at Illinois, my shoes kicking at leaves, my briefcase containing a couple of novels, some poetry, and of course some fun reading, which could include, I recall, Herbert Gold, John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter and Playboy--for the good fiction, you understand.

Our professors were like gods. They were learned and wise and they valued poets we learned to think of in groups: The Romantics, the Metaphysicals. They saw things we couldn't see, not yet. Two of my fellow undergraduates, Larry Woiwode and Paul Tyner, actually sold short stories to The New Yorker, which we read in awe.

In an email the other day, Prof. David Bordwell of the University of Wisconsin responded to a piece I wrote about American education: "Actually, based on what my colleagues tell me, it's worse than we thought at the college level. Students WILL NOT, and absolutely refuse, to read anything. Give the assignment, and they just ignore it, even if there's a quiz on the reading."

I have no doubt of this. Authors like Updike and Roth used to be celebrities. The New York Times fiction best sellers used to be reputable. The well-dressed undergraduate might have a good paperback secreted somewhere about his person. Now there is no longer a pocket not occupied by something electronic. In coffee shops, students who once leaned intently over novels now lean hypnotized over cell phones.

In an article in The Weekly Standard by Joseph P. Epstein asks, "Who Killed the Liberal Arts?Not long after on, Katie Billotte responded, "Conservatives killed the liberal arts" and blurbed: "Destroying the humanities--and the notion of informed citizenship--is part of the conservative agenda."

There are many suspects, but I'm not sure they are political ideologies. If I had to thumb a suspect, it would be the career orientation of many students entering college. They want careers with prestige, income, futures. They know English majors don't exude a sexy aura in singles bars. You walk in out of the 1960s, leather arm-patches on the elbows of your corduroy sport jacket and a copy of The Best American Short Stories of 1972 in your pocket, and you lose.

"In a loose definition," Epstein writes in his excellent article, "the 'liberal arts' denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy, and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central, role; in more recent times, the social science subjects--psychology, sociology, political science--have also sometimes been included. The liberal arts have always been distinguished from more specialized, usually vocational training. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, in this view, he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present."

The words that spring out to me are "vocational training." Do many students enter college these days hoping to become English lit teachers? I have only one friend who learned to read and write Greek, and she later became absorbed in the works of Led Zeppelin. I was a poor central Illinois kid whose father had just died, but I cheerfully headed for the Liberal Arts. Tuition in those days, as I recall, was around $100 a semester for Illinois residents, and I won a state scholarship and worked two newspaper jobs part time.

Today the tuition is unimaginably higher, I am informed by Epstein. You want bangs for your buck. Incoming students are pragmatic and ambitions.

"For many years," he writes, "the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his--though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars. As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle."

He must be right. If film is a liberal art, it may be the only one showing growth in universities, and even then film professors (not Bordwell) tell me they have students who WILL NOT look at silent or black and white films, which is where all the history of cinema begins and much of it resides. Rare the undergraduate in cinema studies who isn't looking for an agent.

Perhaps this is a tragedy, perhaps not. In several years of running thus blog, I have posted more than 110,000 comments, most of them intelligent, some invaluable. I don't have to kill two junk comments a week. I find readers from all over the world who write eloquently about the liberal arts and many other things, and occasionally, as in the memorable example of the one signing herself "A Kid," they reveal themselves as still in middle school.

They have educated themselves. They've read books, seen movies, attended plays. They do it because they love to do it. That's really the best reason, and given the pay scales, maybe the only remaining reason.

I mentioned two undergraduates who sold to The New Yorker. L. Woiwode remains a major American writer. Paul Tyner killed himself. He was a very funny fellow. "Roger," he once lectured me, "the only reason to do anything is to give pleasure to yourself." For years after, in Champaign-Urbana or Chicago, I could identify a men's room Tyner had visited by a graffiti that had become his calling-card: "Auto-fellatio is its own reward."

My blog entry. Perform a concert in words.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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