Militant Multiculturalism

I have held forth on a number of occasions (too many, some might say) about the battles going on in the Higher Education since at least the 1960s when the wheels started to fall off. The battles take many faces but occur under the umbrella term “postmodernism,” a new age that will replace the old. One of those faces is that of “multiculturalism,” which has become increasingly militant and focuses on an attack against Western Civilization — regarded as the source of all major problems now confronting the world. It began with an attack on the “establishment” in the 1960s and expanded to take in the whole of Western Civilization, especially during the Viet Nam war, because of  the West’s consistent pattern of aggression and exploitation in an attempt to bring other peoples to their knees and force them to yield up their treasure  — exacerbated  by the presumption of greatness on the part of Western Europe and America and Western art, literature, and philosophy, in particular.

It’s a movement that is well intended, to be sure, though it tends to dwell all too intently on the failures of the Western way of looking at the world. To be sure, there have been terrible mistakes, such as genocide, greed, slavery, pointless wars, and intolerance of other ways of looking the world. But in the tossing out process something precious is being glossed over and in the tizzy to replace the old with the new some important elements are being ignored or forgotten altogether.

Beaten down by this attack, for example, are the “Great Books” of Western Civilization which are now regarded as the villains in the drama, the source of the ideas that have made our culture rotten at the core — though one must wonder how many the zealots have bothered to read any of those books. Indeed, it is mainly dwindling numbers of old geezers such as myself who continue to spit into the wind while defenders of the New Age proudly display their ignorance and triumph in their new-won victories. Their goal is to “rid the world of colonial oppression,” to convert students to one way of thinking, toss out the old, and pave the way to a new and more open way of engaging the world in an effort at what its called “globalization.” And they are winning. Indeed, they may have already won.

One of the old geezers to have joined the battle in a rear-guard effort save the humanities — where these battles have been fought for the most part — is Anthony Kronman of Yale University who has written a book that describes the battles in some detail in an effort to save what remains and perhaps even to resuscitate the humanities as they lie dying in agony from self-inflicted wounds. His book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges And Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, points out some of the many ironies of the attack on the tradition that is being replaced. To begin with, there is the fact that replacing our culture with another, presumably superior, culture would require a total immersion in that culture, which is not possible — even in theory — for American students who have spent their lives inculcating scraps from the very culture they hope to displace. Furthermore, the attack on Western Civilization draws on the categories and ideals of that very civilization which also provides the intellectual framework, such as it is, for that attack. And ironically those ideas and ideals are endemic to most, if not all, of the cultures that are regarded by the militants as superior to our own from whence they arose. As Kronman points out:

“The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and the recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technical products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.  . . . all of them, all of these distinctively modern ideas and institutions, are of Western origin. . . . The ideas and institutions of the West, liberated from the accidental limits of their historical beginnings, have become the common possession of humanity.”

Moreover, as Kronman points out,

“The idea of tolerance [which the militants champion] finds support in many traditions, especially religious ones. But only in the modern West did it become — fitfully, hesitantly, but with increasing clarity and determination– an axiom of political life.”

I have often noted that we seem to be throwing out the baby with the bath water, but those who would do the throwing couldn’t care less as they reach left and right for the latest Western evil to be tossed. However, while there are indeed many reasons to feel disdain for our past, even terrible, mistakes that we in the West have made, there are also so many things that are worth saving and preserving. To be sure, the universities should be open to new ideas and make the students aware of the many cultures around the world other than their own — all of which also have made mistakes, by the way. But at the same time they should seek to preserve the best of what we have all learned from our own past in order to pass those things along. Healthy criticism is a good thing along with honest appraisal and a weighing of pros and cons, but a hysterical rejection of all things Western in the name of “tolerance” is itself the most intolerant view one can possibly exhibit.

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The Dead Horse

I have been kicking this poor, dead horse for more than fifteen years, starting with my book Recalling Education in 2001. But the following protest by English majors at Yale University — of all places — makes me want to take one more kick. I must say, I know how Bernie Sanders feels (and Cassandra). He knows what is wrong with this country and has a pretty good idea how to fix things. But while there are those who follow his lead (and I do wish I had that many followers!) the people who have the power to actually support his efforts, to take him seriously, simply turn away and ignore him altogether. He is spitting against the wind. I know that feeling: kicking a dead horse while spitting into the wind!

In any event, the following snippet on the ‘net drew my attention:

Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don’t think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.

“It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

We can all sincerely hope that this will not happen. But what is interesting here is that these students want to determine the curriculum while they obviously have no idea whatever what education is all about. It is certainly not about what the students want; it’s about what they need. Moreover, it is not about information, “Correct” or “Incorrect,” though information is a necessary condition of education — one cannot do without it and, as we are seeing, the uneducated among us are terribly misinformed and don’t know a fact from a lie. But while information is necessary it is not sufficient. One must be able to assimilate and process information, separate fact from fiction, truth from falsity, recognize hyperbole and humor. And that’s where these students — and many faculty in my experience — go wrong. They confuse cultural diversity with intellectual diversity. The latter, like information, is necessary for an education; the former is not.

Surely, it is a good thing to know about diverse cultures and there is no reason whatever that these students should not be introduced to cultures other than their own. But above all else they must be introduced to intellectual diversity, the difference of opinion, preferably among men and women of extraordinary stature, the great minds among us. This kind of diversity is found in the so-called “classics” of Western tradition, which these students choose to ignore. There are no two minds in that tradition that agree with one another about much of anything. For example, Aristotle was Plato’s student and he disagreed with his teacher about every important item in the panoply of human thought — except that thought itself is essential for the human being to achieve his or her full potential.

Our students, especially at prestigious universities like Yale where the leaders of tomorrow will study, need to know about intellectual diversity. They need to learn how to use their minds, to become free and independent thinkers who are not bound by cultural boundaries and who recognize tomfoolery and bloat when they see and hear it. They need to read and discuss the greatest minds that have ever lived. This will not happen if their teachers listen to their pleas (threats?) and throw out such thinkers as the great English poets and writers who have helped form the warp and woof of the civilization we are all struggling to maintain.

Diversity is important. Information is important. But cultural diversity and mere information are not sufficient to guarantee that young minds will take possession of themselves. They are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

As the article goes on to point out,

There’s nothing wrong with providing a greater variety of courses for students, and if students want to read more female and minority authors, the English Department is welcome to oblige. But there’s only so much that can be done. There just aren’t that many early modern writers who were gay or transgender.

Students should feel comfortable challenging the notion that a Shakespeare or a Milton deserves his place in the canon: in fact, that sounds like an excellent subject for a classroom discussion facilitated by a professor. But professors need to actually teach students about these pivotal figures before those discussions can be had.

In a word, we need to know whereof we speak before we turn our backs on great minds. Those minds are the very ones that can free our own.