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Trendy theories in college courses

January 13, 2007

Re "Phallus 101," Current, Jan. 7

Charlotte Allen's air of sanctimony about what may seem like absurd classes in academia provokes an easy mockery of these possibly ridiculous classes. But who are we to judge? The alternative -- outside intervention of academic freedom -- seems like a worse course.

And who is to say that today's farcical subject isn't tomorrow's serious one? I think there is a lot to be learned in taking Karl Marx seriously.

Why do I think that the Young America's Foundation has a radical, right-wing agenda? None of the enumerated courses deals with subjects such as creationism, taking conservative economist Arthur Laffer seriously or other subjects that a more-even survey might want to highlight for their absurd rightist radicalism. Vive academic freedom in all its highs and lows.

ROBERT BOOKMAN

Los Angeles

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Shame on The Times for publishing Allen's uncritical endorsement of the Young America's Foundation's diatribe against college courses that seek to illuminate the world in which we live. The foundation notoriously engages in precisely what Allen accuses these courses of -- indoctrination -- and it does so by listing courses out of context, re-imagining their content and holding them up to ridicule. Rather than tell students what to believe, these courses encourage students to think and engage thoughtfully with issues of our time by probing their complexity. They are offered alongside courses that deal more directly with the histories and venerated figures, such as Plato.

I cannot help taking some pride in the fact that the list includes one of our courses, "Queer Musicology," which, as it happens, makes ample reference to Plato.

RAYMOND KNAPP

Santa Monica

The writer chairs the UCLA Department of Musicology.

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To show that trendy theory has replaced the traditional humanities, Allen would need at least to do some counting of courses. Are fewer courses on Plato and Shakespeare taught today than 40 years ago?

Research by the Modern Language Assn. a couple of years ago showed that is not the case. The trendy-theory courses are supplementing more traditional offerings, not replacing them. What's wrong with that? It is obvious that the "traditional" curriculum advocated by Allen does not include logic.

JOHN MCCUMBER

Los Angeles

The writer is a UCLA professor of Germanic languages.

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Rather than offering any coherent critique of the listed courses, Allen simply provides the names of the courses and sometimes a short description. Allen explains that Occidental College's course "Whiteness" examines "the construction of whiteness in the historic, legal and economic contexts which have allowed it to function as an enabling condition for privilege and race-based prejudice."

What is the problem with this? Allen offers no answer. Allen argues that "too much of American higher education has lost any notion of what its students ought to know about the ideas and people and movements that created the civilization in which they live." Understanding the role of "whiteness," however, is fundamental to appreciating the formation of our civilization.

ERIC BIEWENER

Jamaica Plain, Mass.

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