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Rapper Lil’ Kim made headlines last week during her visit to Syracuse University. She wasn’t there to perform a concert, but rather to give a guest lecture for an accredited course taught by English professor Thomas Gregg. The course, which is titled “The Life and Times of Lil’ Kim,” requires students to “read Kim’s song lyrics as literary texts and analyze her iconography in videos and performances.” For an entire semester, students critically examine the life and work of an artist who is best known for rhyming bitch with bitch. If you needed any more proof that higher education is increasingly becoming a joke, there you have it.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the day, there was actually a real emphasis on the great works of the Western tradition. If you were an English major at Syracuse, you were busy reading Shakespeare and Milton and Hemingway. You didn’t have time to learn about Lil Kim’s favorite sex position.
Things have since changed. No longer is the Western canon given its due respect. Students at some schools have the ability to ignore it altogether, spending their time taking trivial classes on pop culture or feel-good multiculturalism. This trend in higher education, which Gregg’s course embodies, has hurt the learning experience of many college students in this country, allowing them to graduate with no real sense of the intellectual tradition that created their world.
College education should give you a sense of this intellectual past by getting you far away from the present and the mindless celebrity worship and inane pop culture that dominates it. Colleges should create an environment and shape a curriculum that maximizes exposure to the great works and the great thinkers of the Western tradition. Colleges fail in this purpose when they distract their students with courses focused on trivial subjects that have nothing to do with important works of the past. This is not to say that there’s no merit in studying current cultural practices or phenomena; but time in college is limited. It should be spent reading Tolstoy and Kant, not psychoanalyzing a musical from Bollywood or writing papers about the cultural impact of “Survivor.”
Many in higher education argue that the nature of the subject being studied is irrelevant—critical thinking skills can be developed as long as the material is presented in the right way. While this may be true, it does not justify these vain attempts to derive meaning out of that which is meaningless. However much Gregg may argue on behalf of Lil’ Kim’s artistic relevance, the bottom line is that he’s wasting his student’s intellectual abilities on the lyrics of someone who became famous largely because she slept with Puff Daddy and wore a scandalous dress to the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. This course is premised not on the artistic or cultural merits of the artist, but on the fact that the artist is famous and that is enough justification to merit study.
Too many people in the academic world have become enraptured by the celebrity-industrial complex and the importance of being famous that goes with it. Rather than examine the great works of the past, they seek to study the trivialities of the present and perhaps secure themselves a place in it. What matters is not being a great scholar driven to find the truth, but rather to appear on “Good Morning America” hawking a book or being rewarded with a cameo in The Matrix Reloaded. This has to change if students are to receive the educations that these costly tuitions should be providing. Curriculums need to be shifted back towards those great works of the past. You shouldn’t have to pay $40,000 a year to learn something that you could have learned watching a special on VH1.
Brian A. Finn ’06, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Lowell House.
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