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Bart vs. the Ivory Tower

By Laura A. Dickinson

YESTERDAY, I watched Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video. Thirty-six times.

And Harvard gave me academic credit for it.

If you do not deem my subject worthy of academic analysis, you would not be alone.

The study of popular culture has come under the fire of educational traditionalists, who charge that the university is a place to study high art--not vulgar forms of entertainment. They see infinitely more value in a treatise on Spinoza than a paper on Spike Lee.

This position is not only elitist, but dangerous. Without the study of modern popular culture--including television, film, radio and other mass media--the academy risks becoming completely isolated from much of the real world.

Harvard's latest drive for "internationalization" of the curriculum seeks to adapt the university to the changing world. But is the solution to add more courses on Great Treaties Signed by Great Men?

Why not begin with a more thorough study of American society by offering more courses on popular culture?

HARVARD offers a scattered array of courses in popular culture: two first-year seminars, a tutorial in Social Studies, a seminar in Women's Studies and a smattering of classes in the Anthropology, History and VES Departments.

These classes are oversubscribed. Andrea Walsh's seminar attracted 87 applicants for about a dozen slots, and her junior tutorial in Social Studies, drawing 19 students, was split into two sections. More than 30 students applied to Lynn Layton's seminar in Women's Studies, and she could only admit 15.

Are such courses popular just because students want to sit around and discuss Donald Duck?

According to critics, the appeal of popular culture studies is academic laziness. Walsh says that "there is an assumption that the level of discussion is not very high...that studying popular culture is an excuse to sit around and do nothing."

Layton tells the story of being browbeaten by a radio talk show host this summer. The host--who, no doubt, would make an excellent subject of critical inquiry--criticized her for teaching Madonna at Harvard when an alarming number of high school students across the country can't even read and write.

BUT why can't they read and write? In part, because of the tremendous explosion of television--a key subject of study in popular culture courses.

Mass media is an important subject for academic study precisely because it is so pervasive. The average American child watches six hours of television a day. Advertising billboards bombard us on every street corner. Our entire political system revolves around the ability of candidates to influence the electorate through advertising and unpaid media coverage.

Whether we like it or not, popular culture dominates our society. If we refuse to recognize and study its influence, we risk subjecting ourselves to its control.

For example, research reveals the disturbing influence of the advertising industry. In the 1950's, advertising representatives monitored television shows from the studio, vetoing material they found objectionable.

Today advertisers' influence may be less overt, but the content of TV shows remains heavily monitored. Remember the gay couple on Thirty-something who disappeared mysteriously after a few episodes? The advertisers sponsoring the show are suspected of threatening to withdraw their support.

Images of women in advertising are no less problematic. Pictures of scantily clad women next to political articles in the New York Times contrast intellectual discourse with the image of women as voiceless, passive objects.

Photographs of models, breasts taped to improve their cleavage, are plastered across the pages of every major publication in the country. These images propagate an impossible ideal of physical beauty to which women must try to measure up.

Many theorists describe the hegemonic influence of modern mass media. Sociologist and cultural critic Todd Gitlin argues that the structure and content of television programs propagate materialist values and political complacency. Historian Stuart Ewen contends that American industry spreads a consumerist ideology through advertising to maintain the authority of the capitalist mode of production.

Are these theories valid? Disagreement certainly exists about the extent and origins of popular culture's influence. But even the sharpest critics of the subject as a topic of academic study recognize its influence.

Allan Bloom, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, deplores the study of non-traditional subjects in the university--such as popular culture. Yet he is also fiercely critical of the effects of popular entertainment on modern American youth. In The Closing of The American Mind, Bloom rants against the corrosive influence of mass media, saying, "Life is made into a non-stop, commercially pre-packaged, masturbational fantasy." An interesting point--but one that would have been better informed by a knowledge of scholarly theory on popular culture.

Popular culture's influence cuts across political perspectives. As a pervasive social phenomenon, it demands study.

So tomorrow, I think I'll study for my midterm.

I'll watch The Simpsons.

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