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Humanities Laureate Cites Illiteracy As a Threat to American Democracy

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Washington--Cleanth Brooks, the eminent literary critic who is the National Endowment for the Humanities' 1985 Jefferson Lecturer, said last week that functional and cultural illiteracy in the United States is a problem of "Pearl Harbor dimensions" that threatens the future of democracy here.

"Neither reading nor writing flourishes in our blessed United States. ... In important respects, we are an illiterate nation," asserted Mr. Brooks, who is also Gray Professor of Rhetoric emeritus at Yale University.

The literary scholar said that what troubles him is not so much the fact that literature has been made a "luxury" in American society, but that some 23 million Americans cannot read or write, that some 40 percent of 17-year-olds cannot draw inferences from written materials, and that youths and adults are interested today in the pursuit of "the good life" to the exclusion of reflection on what that life should entail.

Mr. Brooks's remarks were contained in this year's Jefferson Lecture, delivered here last week before an audience of invited guests. He will repeat the sponsored lecture in New Orleans on May 14.

The Jefferson lectureship, established in 1972 by the humanities endowment, carries a $10,000 stipend and is the highest honor conferred by the federal government for outstanding achievement in the humanities. Past Jefferson lecturers have included the novelist Saul Bellow; the historians Barbara Tuchman, John Hope Franklin, and C. Vann Woodward; and the philosopher Sidney Hook.

Educated Voters

If Thomas Jefferson were around today, Mr. Brooks said, he would be amazed at developments in science and improvements in machinery. But he would also be "shocked to find how many of us still cannot read, and even more shocked to learn what those who can read do read."

According to Mr. Brooks, Jefferson believed that what drives a democracy is "an honest, well-educated set of voters" who can communicate with one another, make difficult decisions, and learn from the mistakes of the past.

But the population today, he said, is by and large unconscious of history and is being mesmerized by television and the "bastard muses of propaganda, sentimentality, and pornography."

Moreover, said the literary scholar, the nation has little concern for language and tends to "lose sight of what words mean."

The word "education" itself has taken on a muddled definition, according to Mr. Brooks.

"Education comes from a Latin root meaning 'to draw out,"' he said. "The idea is to lead students out of their limited worlds, out of provincial thoughts and prejudice, out of the self, and into the broader culture."

But the emphasis in the recent past has been not to "lead students out," he charged, but to provide them with specific skills necessary for performing jobs.

Students, particularly graduate students, are "overspecialized," he said.

Mr. Brooks said he was dismayed that so many Americans put excellence in athletics before excellence in academics.

Strategy for Excellence

"It was once said that the only course taught well at Louisiana State University was football," he commented. "They hired the best coach, paid him the best salary, developed the best players, and practiced hard. They removed any obstacle to success that got in the way."

Such a strategy, Mr. Brooks noted, might also prove successful in raising academic performance in the United States, if the focus were not on training the best students but on leading all students out to "the limits of their abilities."

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