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The English Reader: The Paucity of Allusion

RavitchjackmillerYesterday we co-posted the first of a series of blogs by Diane and Michael Ravitch, authors of The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs To Know. Today we present the second article, also available at Moreover, by Diane Ravitch.

I confess that I am distraught by the contemporary paucity of allusion. Having
so meager a supply of literary and historical references, the writer, artist, and political satirist must rely on popular culture to make points. So we read passing references to Madonna (not the one with Child); to Angelina and Brad; to Paris Hilton (no longer in jail); or to Lindsay Lohan (sorry I don’t know who she is but do know that she has been twice arrested for substance abuse or drunk driving or both).

Ah, for a political figure, a presidential candidate, perhaps, who might be able to draw upon a rich store of allusions. Imagine the leveler who quotes Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village,” to warn “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” Or the anti-war candidate who quotes Wilfred Owen’s poem “Futility” or his “Antehm for Doomed Youth” (“What passing bells for those who die as cattle?”). Or recite some lines from Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” when campaigning against capital
punishment. Or perhaps call upon a few lines from W.H. Auden on meanness of our times (“Intellectual disgrace/Stares from every human face,/And the seas of pity lie/ Locked and frozen in each eye.”)

Madness? Yes, because the candidates must speak to their audiences, and their audiences would have no idea what they were alluding to, and would think them pretentious know-it-alls. So the leaders stick with banalities, trivialities, the words that everyone understands, free of allusions and unburdened by any hint of an educated mind.

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