Notes & Comments: January 1999.
At a time when most of the news coming out of academia is depressing or worse, we were heartened to learn that the City University of New York has won a small victory in its efforts to restore standards at its community colleges. At issue is whether the university has the right to withhold diplomas from bilingual students who do not pass an examination demonstrating rudimentary proficiency in writing English. The controversy came to a head in May 1997 when the university denied diplomas to some five-hundred students at five community colleges within the CUNY system because they had failed to pass the examination. One-hundred students at Hostos, a small community college in the South Bronx, sued the university. Judge Kenneth J. Thompson, Jr., of the State Supreme Court upheld their suit, ruling that requiring students to pass the examination shortly before graduation was "arbitrary" "capricious" and "unfair."
Of course, that is exactly the sort of ruling--which appeals to "equality" and "democracy" when thc issue is simple competence--that has done so much to destroy the quality of American education. Fortunately, the trustees of CUNY, led by Herman Badillo, vice-chairman of the board, appealed the ruling. On December 8, 1998, a four-judge appellate-divison panel overturned Thompson's ruling and upheld the university's right to withhold diplomas from "bilingual" students who actually turn out to be monolingual (or at least monoliterate) at best. Anne A. Paolucci, chairman of the CUNY trustees, summed it up well when she observed that "the true beneficiaries of the decision are the students of Hostos, who must be assured that the completion of their academic requirements will have credibility in the workplace and at other institutions of higher education." This decision in favor of upholding standards is only a small step, to be sure, but for once it is a step in the right direction.
Nothing is simple in academia these days, however. As The New York Post reported, no sooner had the appellate court done the right thing by the students of CUNY than a coalition of "civil liberties" groups went to court to block the university's efforts to raise admissions standards. If you believe that a concern with "civil liberties" has nothing at all to do with seeking to raise admissions standards in an institution supposedly devoted to higher education, you are right. But it has a lot to do with egalitarian ideological warfare. This new suit seeks to invest final authority over CUNY'S admissions standards with the state Board of Regents--a panel, in the Post's apt characterization, "in total thrall to the same gang of unionists, racialist zealots, ivory-tower academics, and hack Democratic politicians that brought the once-world-class university to its present low state." Whether this preposterous suit will succeed remains to be seen. If it does, the primary writing examinations CUNY requires will be in the department of epitaphs.
Off the record
The manufacture of scandal used to be a tabloid specialty. But many people who pay attention to our paper of record will be surprised to learn that imputing scandal where none exists has also become a common feature of the way that The New York Times covers cultural matters. A case in point was "A Fight in the Attic," a story about the Archives of American Art, an important repository of documents about the history of American art that began in the 1950s as a private enterprise but since 1970 has operated as a semi-autonomous branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Written by Judith H. Dobrzynski, the story appeared on the front page of the paper's art section on December 8. The chief point at issue --the raison d'etre for the piece--was the recent decision to close regional offices of the Archives in Boston and Detroit and to streamline operations at the New York office. The decision was made partly for financial reasons--the Archives simply cannot afford to maintain the offices--partly for reasons of efficiency.
There was nothing complicated, mysterious, or untoward about this decision. It was fully justified by the fiscal realities under which the Archives operates. But Ms. Dobrzynski dressed it up as a shocking melodrama, an "uproar," in which Richard J. Wattenmaker, Director of the Archives since 1990, was cast as a heartless bureaucrat and bungling administrator. "Six employees, including two regional directors, would lose their jobs" Ms. Dobrzynski ominously noted. "The news ricocheted around the American art world, and so did the complaints. But they were not enough to stop Mr. Wattenmaker's plans, which went into effect on Nov. 23."
Ms. Dobrzynski devotes the rest of her piece to painting a picture of the Archives as a floundering institution with Mr. Wattenmaker as its sour, clueless leader who has "lashed back" at critics "in a way rarely heard in the art world or in the Government." One would never know from Ms. Dobrzynski's report that Mr. Wattenmaker is an internationally recognized scholar and curator, former chief curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario, former Director of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and the author of a number of important books, including studies of seventeenth-century Dutch art, Puvis de Chavannes, and Maurice Prendergast. One gets no hint from Ms. Dobrzynski's piece that Mr. Wattenmaker has actually greatly expanded the Archives's collecting and publication activities. Ms. Dobrzynski does not mention the many new projects Mr. Wattenmaker has initiated--the recently completed Paris Survey Project, for example, which involved tracking down and cataloguing the many organizations in Paris containing documentary materials about American artists, an innovation that is sure to attract greater attention to American art among European researchers.
Ms. Dobrzynski gravely tells us that Mr. Wattenmaker "acknowledged that only about one-third of the documents" collected by the Archives had been microfilmed. In fact, no "acknowledgment" was necessary. He never intended that the Archives should microfilm its entire collection. The most significant materials are microfilmed, the rest are computer-catalogued, cross-referenced, and available for consultation. The thirteen-million items under its care include papers from artists, dealers, art magazines, art schools, craftsmen, and galleries, all of which are available to writers and scholars. This is a fact that gets lost in Ms. Dobrzynski's little drama about the "battle" that she imagines being waged regarding the Archives's mandate. The battle is pure fabrication. But that hardly seems to matter these days for the Times, which in its cultural coverage appears less and less a paper of record and more and more a cheerleader for pre-approved figures and causes and--as Ezra Pound said in another context--a stirrer-up of strife for those of which it disapproves.
Connoisseurs of pretentious fatuousness owe a great deal to the literary critic George Steiner. For over thirty years, this self-declared "polymath" has provided them with one of their choicest specimens of pomposity. Rarely has nature united so much preening self-satisfaction with such prodigies of academic double-talk. Mr. Steiner has even gone so far as to bestow rifles like After Babel on his books--a label so perfectly descriptive of everything George Steiner stands for that many experts prefer it even to Errata, the deliciously apt rifle of his recent autobiography. (Sample passage, about his time as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago: "The compaction, the density of encounter at Chicago was formidable. In my twelve months as an undergraduate...." Only twelve months, George! Mais oui!) For those whose hobbies include collecting stories about Mr. Steiner's absurdities, it is a great sorrow that Max Beerbohm cannot make a return visit in order to provide us with a caricature of the master at work.
It seemed like a just compensation, then, when it was announced that Mr. Steiner was the winner of the $100,000 Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award. The conjunction of George Steiner and Truman Capote--who in his own way was almost as fey as Mr. Steiner is in his--is special. And the fact that the award was established in memory of Newton Arvin--the Smith English professor who fell madly in love with Truman Capote--makes the award as exquisite as sighting a dodo on the manicured lawns of King's College, Cambridge, one of the very many exalted institutions with which Mr. Steiner has been said to be associated.