In a recent post, “Do We Teach Western Civilization?“, I discussed some of the issues that I have encountered in my experience with contemporary classical K-12 education in the United States. In this post, I want to continue that discussion by proposing some possible solutions to the problem of how to have a classical curriculum that both equips students with cultural literacy and reflects a diversity of cultures.
First, I think it is important to point out that although these two ideals are often cast as mutually exclusive goals, I think that they are in fact complementary. In the recent and ongoing protests at various colleges over English and humanities curricula that are perceived as “too white” and “too male,” for example, both sides of the issue seem to take it as their basic premise that a curriculum with a strong canonical emphasis must necessarily be a curriculum that lacks diversity.
To me, this seems bizarre. I currently teach literature and humanities courses at the college level in a college that is majority minority. My courses are, by design, focused on canonical works because I believe it is important for my students to gain some fluency in the “standards” that form the background to so much of American literature and even popular culture. The majority of my students come from disadvantaged backgrounds; many come from low-income households and neighborhoods, went to subpar public schools, are immigrants, and/or live in academic deserts in south Georgia. They deserve access to the works that the students of much more selective colleges like Reed College simply take for granted. There is an irony in the fact that removing canonical works from the curriculum is more likely to harm those students who are already at a disadvantage because of the lack of background exposure to these works in their middle and high schools.
In spite of the canonical focus of the courses I teach, however, I have never had an issue with having a diverse curriculum. When I go back through the assigned readings in my syllabi, I almost always have a close to a 50/50 gender balance of authors and a set of authors from diverse backgrounds. To be honest, I wonder how one cannot arrive at this simply by choosing authors that are important for students to know. My Introduction to Humanities syllabus, for example, is focused on the intellectual development of the West beginning with ancient Greece and progressing through to the 20th century. By necessity rather than by any attempt at pseudo-diversity by counting the numbers, there are readings from Du Bois, Gandhi, and a long section on Islam, among other diverse authors and topics. How could it be otherwise? The same is true of the readings from my literature courses; how could one teach an introductory American literature and poetry course without a heavy sampling, for example, from African-American authors?
The same was true of the curricula I developed when I taught in a classical K-12 charter school. I didn’t read Washington’s Up from Slavery or Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk or Ellison’s Invisible Man with my students because they were mostly African American; I read these works with them because they are important canonical works.
If diversity in the curriculum doesn’t come naturally when one thinks of canonical works, perhaps it is time to reconsider what canonical means. In fact, perhaps it is time to reconsider the meaning of classical education. If it is to be more than mere Victorian revivalism and a strange sense of nostalgia for the 19th century, it has to be founded on a set of axioms that make sense in the modern world.
Any approach to education begins with a set of axioms that express the sort of person you want your students to be at the end of their period of institutional education. For me, the goal has always been that my students become:
- Culturally literature
- Lovers of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
I see no contradiction between these goals. I want my students to understand the culture around them, and in the United States much of that culture is “Western,” but much of it is also non-Western. I want my students to feel a sense of being rooted in their own cultures and locations, but simultaneously to understand and appreciate the diversity of other cultures around them. And to see each culture as an expression of the universal desire for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty on the part of all people.
I emphatically do not believe that one must abandon the very concept of canon or of the Absolute in order to embrace an appreciation for diversity and to value the variety of cultures. The problem is not with believing that some things are better than others or that some things are truer than others; it is with the mistake of automatically assuming that difference is always a matter of better and worse and the all-too-human tendency to identify one’s own as the better.
I frequently tell my students that if something is True and Good and Beautiful, it is theirs. It is their birthright as human beings. Every aspect of the human experience is part of their experience. They may have their own heritages that they carry with them in a unique way, but they should be able to view every accomplishment of humanity as, in a sense, their own. Every person, no matter their faith, linguistic, cultural, or ethnic background, should be able to see the art of Leonardo da Vinci, the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois, the Bhagavad Gita, and Plato as their heritage as member of the human family.
Terence’s famous line “nothing human is alien to me” is a motto to live by. In its original context, the line is spoken by a character in one of Terence’s plays who is justifying his eavesdropping on others’ conversations. This seems appropriate to the modern world. In a sense, when I, as a Westerner, read the great works of ancient China or India or even Greece, I am eavesdropping on others’ conversations. They were not writing for me or to me, yet I am able to overhear them two thousand years later, and to see that their concerns are my concerns too, that they have something to say to me about what it means to be a human being.
Practically speaking, what I would like to see is a classical curriculum that continues the emphasis that classical K-12 schools have on grammar, logic, and rhetoric (that is, on an understanding of and authentic engagement with ideas), but that widens the scope of the conversation. I would like to see the Mahabharata and the Ramayana taught alongside the Iliad and the Odyssey; Confucius and Lao Tzu taught with Plato and Aristotle; Kabuki and Noh taught with Shakespeare. Such a curriculum may be difficult to accomplish. There is, after all, only so much time in the school year, which means some sacrifices will have to be made from existing material. Then there is the matter of finding teachers who have a diverse enough educational background and a cosmopolitan enough attitude to teach these subjects effectively.
But the difficulty is worth it. When every voice is heard, we are all richer for it.
I have been trying to formulate a satisfactory answer to this question for as long as I have been in education. I have been involved in K-12 classical education for more than six years, including five years as a founding faculty member of a classical K-12 charter school in Savannah. Throughout that time, I have had to navigate the rather peculiar amalgam that is classical education and the perhaps more peculiar intricacies of American public education. And this question is one that has recurred, in various forms, throughout that time. Of course, depending on who puts it and how it is put, the expected answer can differ wildly.
A few examples:
The school at which I taught had some unique demographics when compared to classical schools in the United States. While the classrooms were diverse in effect, the students were more than three-quarters African American and more than three-quarters from low-income households. Most classical schools, whether private or charter, tend to be middle class—typically upper middle class—and overwhelmingly white. As can be imagined, our unique demographics presented us with some interesting challenges.
Before the school even opened its doors, for example, an editorial ran in a local newspaper decrying the Eurocentrism of the typical classical curriculum and demanding that “our children be taught our history.” This criticism was reiterated by the state of Georgia in their critique of our school a few years later, when they stated bluntly that a classical curriculum is “inappropriate for this demographic.” More recently, the members of the DC Public Charter School Board alleged that African American students might find a classical curriculum “alienating” during the public question-and-answer session with a group seeking to start a similar school.
These sorts of criticisms are, of course, not unique to the school that I was a part of. They are questions that are being raised in Classics as an academic field as well. The recent racist incident as a meeting of the Society for Classical Studies provides an example of the sort of debate that is going on in that field, as some classicists seek to hold on to an older theory of the Romans and the Greeks as the founders of Western Civilization while others aim for a broader interpretation of classics, perhaps even an elimination of Classics as a separate field in favor of a Department of Ancient History.
Personally, I have struggled with these questions.
One the one hand, I am aware of the history of classical education and of the academic field of Classics, and the ways in which both have been used to justify and perpetuate racism. There is a deep association between classicism and racism in the early modern era that continues even to the present day. Advocates of classical education often reiterate the racist arguments of their nineteenth-century forebears without even realizing that they are doing so. At the opening of our school, one prominent advocate of classical education spoke about the idea of “becoming fully human,” an idea with roots in classical humanism, but with some very troubling associations in south Georgia.
More than that, most classical schools seem like some sort of bizarre Victorian revivalism, idealizing the “tougher” educational practices of the a century ago. They seek to model themselves on whatever was done in schools before the influence of John Dewey, taking no account of the significantly changed world and changed United States that have been brought about by technology and globalization.
The most troubling aspect of the rhetoric and practice of contemporary K-12 classical education, I think, is the constant talk of the Platonic trinity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful coupled with an emphasis on the Western canon. Each of these things on their own seems to me to be a good thing. I think it is good to want students to know what is virtuous and right, to seek the truth, and to recognize and appreciate beauty. And I tend to agree with the Great Books philosophy that some works are just time better than others. The problem arises, for me, when these two ideas are coupled. When a classical school proclaims that they guide students to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and then provide a reading list which consists entirely of authors from one rather small peninsula (that is, Europe), this is problematic. The not-too-subtle implication is that India, China, Africa—the whole rest of the world—have somehow fallen short of the Absolute, the Best, the Greatest. I agree with the DC Public Charter School Board; such a curriculum is indeed “alienating” for students of color—for any student, to be quite honest.
One the other hand, however, I think that the findings of E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, have not been sufficiently taken into account by the critics of classical education, nor by the educational establishment as a whole. There has been enough discussion of Hirsch’s bestseller since it was published in the mid-1980s, and I don’t want to rehash the debate. But I can say with absolute certainty that my own experience has confirmed Hirsch’s findings for me.
After introductions on the first day of class of our new school, I spent some time trying to get a sense of what my students already knew so that I can build on their prior knowledge. I asked a series of what I thought were rather simple questions that any sixth-grade American student should know: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Can anyone name and point to all seven continent on the map of the world over here? What is this building called (pointing to my poster of the Parthenon)? Does anyone know who the first emperor of the Roman Empire was? After a moment of silence: Has anyone heard of the Roman Empire before? Silence.
This is disturbing. This should be disturbing to anyone reading this. Not one of my 50 sixth-graders could identify Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; could name and point to North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica on a map; had ever seen the Parthenon before; could identify Augustus Caesar as the first Roman emperor; or had even heard of the Roman Empire. Not one. This isn’t their fault, of course. The Georgia social studies curriculum for grades K-8 includes absolutely no history from before Christopher Columbus; that means no Mesopotamia, no Greece, no Rome, no Middle Ages. And what it does include seems more often than not to be a hodge-podge of this and that from modern history rather than any real narrative that would provide a sense of the scope of historical development in the world.
An all-European “Western canon” curriculum is alienating. However, an education that doesn’t provide a child with even a basic understanding of the world they live in and how it got to be this way is undoubtedly more alienating.
And so I find myself navigating these two extremes.
In my next post, I will continue this discussion by proposing my own solution to the problem.