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An Ignorant Time

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An Ignorant Time

A once-great magazine reflects how far cultural knowledge has fallen. February 29, 2016
Arts and Culture

Last week, newspaper city rooms were alive with the sound of schadenfreude, and Twitterers tweeted about the latest display of ignorance in Time. To watchers of newspapers and newsmagazines, the incident came as no surprise. During the still-young millennium, ad dollars have fled from traditional periodicals to television and the Internet. Result: Shrinking readership, diminished staffs, and outsourced research. In Time’s case, the publication relied on a data-compiling site, the Open Syllabus Project, for a list of the most-read female writers in college classes. Number 97 was Evelyn Waugh. The trouble is, Waugh was a male.

As a former Time reader, for one, and as a former Time writer and editor, for two, I can testify that my colleagues and I were quite familiar with the great comic novelist. We knew no writer sharper or funnier than Evelyn Waugh when he satirized upper-class excess in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and Black Mischief. The demolition job on the press in Scoop, a dazzling take on Italy’s 1936 war on Abyssinia as seen by a group of mendacious British newsmen, has never been equaled. I wouldn’t hire a writer who hadn’t read Scoop; it remains the manual on the malpractice of journalism across the pond and in the colonies.

For the record, should anyone be taking notes on Liberty Street, Waugh was described by Edmund Wilson as “the only first-rate genius the English have produced since George Bernard Shaw.” (A parenthesis for present-day Time employees: Edmund Wilson was the most prominent American literary critic to work outside the academy, writing on subjects as diverse as trends in current fiction, Freudianism, and the Cold War.) Gore Vidal later cited Waugh as “our time’s first satirist.” (Vidal was a prominent American novelist, playwright, and acidulous political commentator.)

When the dustup hit the Net, one of Twitter’s most popular commentators, Matthew Yglesias, owned up to his ignorance like a man—an unlettered man. “Confession time,” he wrote. “Until today I thought Evelyn Waugh was a woman, because his name is ‘Evelyn’ and that is typically a woman’s name.” Whereupon, a derisive Twitterer asked, “Have you ever read anything?” Answering in kind, Yglesias shot back, “Yes, several books but none by Evelyn Waugh.”

Very amusing, but Yglesias isn’t your average blogger. He’s a graduate of Dalton—a tony Manhattan progressive school—and attended Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude in 2003. If Waugh is untaught—and perhaps unknown— in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that lends credence to an essay in the education-watching site Minding the Campus. Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen laments, “My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.”

Waugh saw all this coming more than 50 years ago. In Scott-King’s Modern Europe, a fatuous headmaster declares, “Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ anymore. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the public world. You can hardly blame them, can you?” Scott-King, Waugh’s mouthpiece, responds: “I can and do. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

Contemporary tendencies—from know-nothing reportage to grade inflation—can be corrected. But the blackboard is large, and the erasers grow fewer by the year. When once-formidable newspapers like the New York Times print regular, lengthy columns of misattributions and misinformation, and when a newsmagazine cannot identify the sex of an author, much less his/her significance, Americans can no longer depend on periodicals to set things straight. That job, ironically, has been ceded to the freewheeling and often irresponsible Internet. Thus by default the solution must come, as it did long ago, from diligent instruction—private, parochial, and public. It had better. For as Abraham Lincoln observed, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” (A former Illinois congressman, Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States.)

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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