From The Ethics Alarms Cultural Illiteracy Files: “A Streetcar Naked Desire”

On Wheel of Fortune, an unfortunate contestant named Kevin was confronted with the board above, and had only to name the missing letter to collect his prize.

He guessed “K.”

1.  It is fair to say that he had never heard of the Tennessee Williams drama, easily one of the top ten plays in the classic American theatrical canon.

2. Does this amazing gap in Kevin’s basic education prove that American schools are failing our children and society? No. It shouldn’t fill us with confidence, either.

3. What else does this mean Kevin has never heard of? “Stella!!!”?  Brando? Elia Kazan? The House Un-American Activities Committee? Naming names? Guilt by association? “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”? “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’?

4. What does it say about U.S. society that someone this ignorant of basic culture feels confident going on a nationally televised game show? I think it suggests that not only are too many people ignorant and uneducated, they don’t even know how ignorant and uneducated they are.  Worse yet, it may mean that such people don’t think that there is anything wrong with being ignorant and uneducated.

5. Though Kevin is being widely mocked on social media, I bet there are more adults who wouldn’t be able to solve the puzzle that we would like to think.

6. This is why I started a professional theater company dedicated to producing great American plays that theater companies didn’t produce any more. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” however, was on the list of plays so common, so frequently taught in schools and so well-known that we would never mount them.

Oops.

[I’m still sick, by the way, and have been sleeping most of the day. This story made me sicker.]

Literary Quotation Ethics

I am gradually catching up on “Criminal Minds,” the CBS crimes drama that operates in an America where there are serial killers under every rock. On an episode from 2008, the show used a quotation (famous quotations generally begin and close each episode) attributed to Ayn Rand, the author/philosopher who championed “objectivism” and her own peculiar brand of non-compassionate individualism.  The quote: “We are all brothers under the skin—and I, for one, would be willing to skin humanity to prove it.”

This seemed a little harsh even for Ayn Rand; I figured she must have been having a bad day. “Nice lady,” I commented to my wife, who rolled her eyes, for she is not a Rand admirer. Later, I mentioned the quote to a quotation-obsessed friend, who informed me that the words were really uttered by an Ayn Rand villain, Ellsworth Toohey, the unprincipled newspaper columnist who makes life miserable for the hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark.

Was “Criminal Minds” fair to Ayn Rand? Continue reading