Notwithstanding this rather hysterical response to it, the Camille Paglia essay recently featured at Arts & Letters Daily is really very good. It's in the more scholarly mode of Sexual Personae, and is well worth reading. Here are her main points:
Decade by decade since the 1960s, popular culture, with its stunning commercial success, has gained strength until it now no longer is the brash alternative to organized religion or an effete literary establishment: it is the culture for American students, who outside urban centers have little exposure to the fine arts...
Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine American students today, even at elite universities, gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. . .
Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them. I am reminded of an unnerving scene in Stanley Kubrick's epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an astronaut, his air hose cut by the master computer gone amok, spins helplessly off into space. The new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture. . . The ironically self-referential or overtly politicized and jargon-ridden paradigms of higher education, far from helping the young to cope or develop, have worsened their vertigo and free fall. Today's students require not subversion of rationalist assumptions—the childhood legacy of intellectuals born in Europe between the two World Wars—but the most basic introduction to structure and chronology. Without that, they are riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images. . . .
Since Paglia herself has been among the most vocal champions of "popular culture" among academics and intellectuals, the essay can almost be read as a kind of apology for her own excesses in encouraging us to "become unmoored from the mother ship of culture," or at least as an expression of second thoughts about her own possible collusion with the powers that be in the academy in "subverting" literature and the fine arts.
Anyone who has tried to teach literature to either high school or college students over the past 15 years knows, however, that she is correct in her description of these students' capacity to read not just long books but any works of literature that require careful attention. It is also true that the prevailing models of literary study actively encourage this corruption of reading by dismissing, both implicitly and explicitly, what gets called "elite" culture as the encoded propaganda of the Oppressor. Students are assured that they don't need to take art and literature seriously because it will only hurt their feelings, or worse. (This is itself an inherently patronizing approach, since it assumes that only the tenured among us need to consider such works in the first place in order to determine they are indeed bad for us.)
I don't think computers have much to do with this state of affairs, although television certainly does. Computers--the internet more generally--requires the active agency of its users, and there's nothing wrong with sampling some of what art and literature have to offer for the first time in cyberspace rather than in a museum or classroom. Television, on the other hand, is entirely passive and does promote the kind of impatience with anything that can't be reduced to its demands that Paglia discusses.
Paglia then goes on to describe the way she tries to introduce her own students to visual art, and although her approach seems reasonable enough, others more competent to assess it would have to do so. I'm also not sure that this kind of remedial, catch-up work will in the long run be very effective. It may be too late. My impression of much of the current discourse on art, music, and literature, even among professed enthusiasts, is that all of these arts have gotten too "difficult," too "cerebral," too far away from what "common people" like. In discussions of literature, much of this criticism seems to take writers to task for not writing books that could easily be made into movies and tv shows. If the experience of reading a novel is ultimately judged by whether it seems like watching television sitcoms, then there's no reason to read (or write) novels at all.
In the response to which I linked above, Paglia's analysis is labeled "cultural conservatism." It is only conservative if we stick to the core meaning of the term--to "conserve." Given that presently in American culture there's not much left of either the ability or the desire to experience any works of art in a substantive way, conserving it is now probably beside the point. Bringing art and literature back into the lives of people of any age--or at least the knowledge of how to do that for themselves--would actually be a fairly radical act. It's the partisans of the current media culture and the mavens of academic criticism who have become the "cultural conservatives."