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After absorbing a barrage of criticism from deconstructionists, Egyptologists, and multiculturalists, scholars who support the traditional literary canon sound off in a special section of the Feb. 18 New Republic.

Fred Siegel, a professor of humanities at the Cooper Union, finds the "new orthodoxy" of multiculturalism a threat that is turning humanities study in America into an "intellectual backwater."

Supporters of multiculturalism counter that knowledge is power. And since white males have held a virtual monopoly on the ideas that have shaped Western culture, the system's values, they say, are intrinsically oppressive. Works of previously "silenced" groups, such as minorities and women, must be studied in light of this history.

Mr. Siegel sees this ideology as providing an excuse to avoid the rigor of teaching the basics. "The multiculturalists are interested in feeling, not in learning," he writes.

On a more ominous note, he warns that some teachers may use course content as a political bargaining chip. By claiming that their critics are racist, he says, they effectively silence any opposition from the majority, thus gaining faculty influence.

The author Irving Howe asks whether those who want to change the definition of the humanities are not putting their students' education at risk: "[I]s there not something grossly patronizing in the notion that while diverse literary studies are appropriate for middle-class white students, something else, racially determined, is required for minorities?"

While acknowledging the dearth of women and minority writers in the classical canon, Mr. Howe warns against using political criteria in the realm of literary criticism. Students should be allowed to enjoy literature for its own sake, he says. "To see politics everywhere is to diminish the weight of politics."

Two scholarly observers of popular culture dissect the impact of television--on society and in the classroom--in the March issue of Harper's.

Neil Postman, the New York University professor who has written widely on the medium, views television as an impediment to literacy, a technological development that has helped shorten attention spans and distort the perception of reality.

The author and Philadelphia College of the Arts professor Camille Paglia, on the other hand, embraces the medium as both a creator and a reflection of popular culture, which is itself, she says, "an eruption of paganism."

Both commentators agree, however, that TV should not be an integral part of the schoolroom. "If schools ... become not content-centered but attention-centered ... the game may be lost," says Mr. Postman. Adds Ms. Paglia: "The student must learn the logical, hierarchical system of word-based learning."--skg

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