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Philosophical ruminations.
March 3 1999 3:30 AM

News from academe.


Love's Labor's Lost


Scholarly opinion is mixed on Shakespeare in Love. In a New York Times op-ed piece earlier this month, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt inveighed against the film's historical infelicities, errors that he attributed to Hollywood's moral cowardice. Where screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard made Gwyneth Paltrow the inspiration for the young poet's love-struck "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" historians, Greenblatt scolded, know that the sonnet, like 125 others, was in all likelihood written to a young man. "How is it that a miserably undemocratic, unenlightened culture 400 years ago could be more tolerant of expressions of same-sex love, or the appearance of it, than our own?" he wondered. Greenblatt isn't against all forms of poetic license, though--just those that strike him as politically incorrect. He writes that several years ago he tried to persuade Norman to devise a screenplay about Shakespeare's relationship with the homosexual playwright Christopher Marlowe, whose murder in a tavern in 1593 forms a subplot to Shakespeare in Love. Other scholars are gentler on the film. In Newsweek, the usually grumpy Harold Bloom called it "charming"; Clemson University's James Andreas enthused, "Shakespeare was a pop phenomenon in his own age. Now, thanks to our modern media, he's becoming the real king of pop he always was."

Mass Appeal

According to recent reports in the New York Times and the New Republic, a Vatican-led crackdown on American Catholic colleges and universities is advancing. Among the most controversial of a plate of new proposals from a committee of American bishops: church approval of theology department hires, majority quotas of "faithful Catholics" for faculties and trustee boards, and professions of faith and fidelity to the church on the part of university presidents. The Vatican has no formal means of enforcing the standards. According to the Times, schools such as New York City's nominally Catholic Fordham University--where Mass is optional and the chair of the theology department isn't even Catholic--are nonetheless concerned about the potential impact on their reputations. Members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities are trying to satisfy the Vatican but preserve academic freedom, student body diversity, and teaching quality.

Don't Look Bakke


The anti-affirmative action movement is urging students to sue their schools. Determined to abolish race preferences in higher education, the Center for Individual Rights of Washington, D.C., is funding a provocative ad campaign telling students that academic affirmative action policies "violate the law." The center successfully used this club against the University of Texas in 1996, arguing that the school was misreading the U.S. Supreme Court's Bakke decision. The New York Times says the center is currently going after the law schools of the University of Washington and the University of Michigan.


So dismayed are professors and administrators at the poor quality of their students' speech, reports the Boston Globe, that a number of schools, from Smith College to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are increasing classroom speaking requirements and offering electives to help students lose speech tics such as "whatever" and "you know." Says Smith President Ruth Simmons about the prevalent patois: "It's minimalist, it's reductionist, it's repetitive, it's imprecise, it's inarticulate, it's vernacular."


Raising the Stakes


Yale law professor and quirky constitutional historian Bruce Ackerman, testifying before the House of Representatives in December, argued that a newly elected Congress has little authority to try an official who was impeached by the previous one. Though Ackerman's claims were dismissed by anti-impeachment scholars such as Lawrence Tribe, they are not without their supporters, and he has now presented them in a minibook, The Case Against Lameduck Impeachment. Another project, written with Yale colleague Anne Alstott, is even more outré. In The Stakeholder Society, the pair present a novel plan to fight income inequality: Give all Americans a "capital stake" of $80,000 when they reach adulthood to spend as they wish. The money would be raised via taxes on the wealthiest 40 percent of the population and, eventually, the estates of deceased beneficiaries. The plan has been touted in the New York Times Magazine. Can a meeting with Al Gore (or at least Hillary Clinton) be far behind?

How Green Was My Cali

The critics are ganging up on social critic Mike Davis, the MacArthur fellow and Marxist deflater of Los Angeles' dreams and delusions. Local columnists have pointed out a number of errors and unsubstantiated stories in Davis' two books about Los Angeles: City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998). The errors range from the trivial (misspelling the name of former Gov. George Deukmejian) to the significant (reporting that there are 2,000 gated communities in Los Angeles when there are, in fact, 100). The spat has attracted attention in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Economist. Davis-bashing social critic Joel Kotkin declared, "What bothers me even as a person who was trained as a Marxist is that somebody would so bastardize Marxist theory to the point of making things up." But in The Nation, University of California, Irvine historian Jon Wiener contends that Davis is the victim of a campaign by city boosters to run their most persistent critic out of town. Davis, ironically, has accepted a history appointment 3,000 miles away--at Long Island's State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Intelligences Report

Harvard education guru Howard Gardner made a name for himself years ago with his theory of "multiple intelligences," which posited that many different kinds of intelligence--musical, spatial, linguistic, interpersonal, etc.--balanced differently in different people. A few months ago, James Traub, assessing the impact of Gardner's theory in the New Republic, charged that the multiple-intelligence movement has dumbed down the curriculum in many schools. But in the February Atlantic Monthly, Gardner renews his call for cognitive pluralism: Not only is there more than one kind of intelligence, but those intelligences, as he calls them, are only part of the story. He writes, "We should recognize that intelligences, creativity, and morality--to mention just three desiderata--are separate. Each may require its own form of measurement or assessment, and some will prove far easier to assess objectively than others."