Thursday, March 23, 2006

Reality TV, and what passes for literature

As all of my day-to-day readers know, I correspond regularly with a young university student in Iran, for whom my affection and respect continue to grow as I become better acquainted with her. She is bright, generous, sensitive, thoughtful, and remarkably well-read, among other things; and I find myself hoping more and more that our friendship is as rewarding for her as it is for me, although I have some doubts on that score. I've been made to understand that she has a wonderful set of parents, which is easy enough to believe; in any event, they appear to have done a crackerjack job of raising my young friend.

Earlier this week, I learned a couple of tidbits about her that I found particularly impressive. The first is that she decided at an early age that she wanted to learn English, which she then proceeded to teach herself, partly by devouring one English classic after another in the original language. (I did much the same thing myself with Italian, so I can relate. Incidentally, she told me she reads more in English than she does in Persian.) The second is that in a message I received from her a couple of days ago, she emphasized a point by quoting from Hard Times, a Dickens novel which, I am more than a little embarrassed to admit, I had never even heard of until that moment. Although nonfiction is more my domain, I consider myself to be no slouch when it comes to literature; but considering the society in which my friend lives and moves and has her being, my own accomplishments with respect to reading pale when compared to hers. (As an aside, I am aware that she was up one night this week until 3 a.m. She told me that was her favorite time for reading and introspection, and she evidently puts it to very good use.)

I could not help thinking of her earlier today, when I came across this article, which appears in even though I discovered it myself through a link in Meridian Magazine. My Iranian friend is starting to seem like the daughter I wish I had, not because I don't appreciate Vanessa -- fact is, I adore Vanessa, who has some unique and much-appreciated gifts of her own -- but merely because Vanessa is in no way an intellectual. Part of that is simply because she is not naturally drawn to the world of books and ideas, but surely the constant dumbing-down of public-school curricula has something to do with it as well. As the article points out, this trend toward mediocrity has infected higher education as well, promising eventual results that will surely be unfortunate for all of us, if not downright tragic. The author notes that reality TV and higher education are starting to resemble each other, and makes a good case to support her claim.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants -- a book she has almost certainly never heard of, although perhaps I should not be particularly surprised if she has -- my Iranian friend finds time, even amid the difficulties of coping with the whims, caprices, aggravations, and impositions of her regime, to seek wisdom and learning "out of the best books." She seems to be driven by a unique sort of internal compass, which I wish she could replicate somehow and distribute among the powers-that-be in the higher-education establishment here in America.


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