Do We Teach Western Civilization?

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.

A Heartbeat in Georgia

I don’t like Brian Kemp. I didn’t vote for him in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial election; I supported Stacey Abrams, his Democratic opponent. I don’t know if Kemp is a racist, but I am certain that he won the election because racism is still alive and well in Georgia. He is enabled by and reflects the worst of the Republican Party, which these days seems to be all that is left of the Republican Party. His electoral victory was a victory for bigotry. It is people like him that have played a large role in causing me not only to leave the Republican Party but to move ever further left politically over the last several years.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was the moment that I stopped calling myself a “conservative.” I had always had my doubts, as anyone should, but my political leanings for more than a decade were solidly to the right. I identified for most of that time with the basic principles of conservatism outlined by Russell Kirk. In fact, I still agree with most of them. Perhaps I am simply temperamentally conservative. Nonetheless, the election of a dotardly womanizing vulgarian to the presidency by people who claimed to be the party of family values was too much hypocrisy for me to handle. I stopped calling myself a conservative, and I have drifted further left on just about every issue since then. Medicare for all? Yes. Gun control? Now. Immigration? The more the merrier. I even joined the Democratic Socialists of America on Labor Day last year. I have the card to prove it.

But to every rule there must be an exception. And, for me, that exception is abortion. While I have moved left—often even further left than the mainstream of the Democratic Party—on nearly every issue, I have simultaneously moved further and further right on the issue of abortion.

For that reason, I find myself out of sync today with those that I usually find myself in total agreement with. Today, Governor Kemp signed into law a bill that bans most abortions after the fetus develops a detectable heartbeat, which occurs at about six weeks of pregnancy. This law will, in effect, ban abortion in the state of Georgia. While most (about 91.1%, according to the CDC) of abortions occur at or before 13 weeks of pregnancy, most of those occur after six weeks simply because most women do not realize they are pregnant until about six weeks, and often a bit after.

Friends that I typically find myself in alignment with politically have been loudly rejecting this new law as I have been observing their posts on Facebook and Twitter. To some extent, I sympathize; I will admit that I find such a law disingenuous at best when it originates among the members of the same party that gleefully attempts to take away access to affordable healthcare from those in need and that lines its pockets with NRA money while voting against common sense gun laws with popular support. There’s no doubt about it; most of these people care more about their own money and power—or at least the money and power of the super-wealthy who provide their money and power—than “family values” and “unborn children.”

But Kemp was right to sign this bill today. And the Republican members of the Georgia legislature were right to vote for it. And the Democrats are wrong here.

This is the issue that I simply can’t go left on. To me, the math seems too simple; to put it in the form of a syllogism:

  1. Human beings possess innate dignity, which includes the right to life.
  2. A zygote, an embryo, and a fetus are all human beings.
  3. Therefore, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses possess innate dignity, including the right to life.

When those who favor legalized abortion argue against the premises of this syllogism, it is the minor premise that is most often attacked. One of my friends, for example, exclaimed today on Facebook that “a clump of cells” now has more rights than an LGBTQ person in Georgia. While I agree that Georgia—and the United States as a whole—needs to do a great deal more to protect LGBTQ people, the assertion that a zygote or embryo is merely “a clump of cells” belies the fact that every human being at every age is merely a clump of cells. The zygote, the embryo, the fetus, and the eighty-year-old man are all clumps of cells at various stages of development. More importantly, each possesses every biological indicator of humanity; each is, according to any scientific definition, an individual and unique member of the human species.

The real problem, however, is with the major premise: each human being possesses innate dignity. If we have talked politics, religion, or philosophy with anybody, we have all had the frustrating experience of talking to someone who doesn’t share the same basic axioms as ourselves. When you find someone whose basic outlook differs substantially from your own, the result often feels like you’re trying to play Poker with someone who is playing Spades. When we each have a different set of rules, no one wins and yet both parties go away believing they have won. Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than debating someone with radically different axioms is debating someone with identical axioms who has reached a radically different conclusion based on those shared premises.

This seems to be the case with abortion, and this is why I believe abortion is one issue upon which there will be permanent disagreement that positions roughly half of the population on each side of the issue. Both sides work from the same major premise: that human life possesses innate dignity. From that point, however, they reach radically different conclusions due to divergent emphases. Whereas the pro-life person concentrates on the fetus, the pro-choice person focuses on the woman; and, so it seems, never the twain shall meet once that point of departure is reached.

What makes this divergence even more unbridgeable is that the major premise is not a fact. It is, at least, not a fact in the way that “the sky is blue” or “humans are multicellular organisms” are facts. It is an assertion about human nature that has no direct, objectively provable point of reference in the world of mere facts. It is a moral commitment, a strongly held belief that describes much more about how a person feels about her fellow human beings than it does about those human beings in and of themselves.

As a result, the movement from major premise to minor premise becomes doubtful for those on the pro-choice side of the issue. The woman is a fact; she is in front of you, an obviously living human being. The fetus and especially the zygote and the embryo, however, are hidden; they are small and hidden in the darkness of the womb and in the earliest stages look nothing like what we think of when we think of a human being. This doesn’t make them any less human according to a biological definition of the term, of course, but it does create a shadowy area where perhaps the major premise no longer applies. Yes, human beings possess innate dignity, but is this tiny thing—this “clump of cells”—human? Maybe or maybe not, but the contrast between the humanity and dignity of this “clump of cells” and the two-legged, breathing woman it is inside of is a strong one.

So, what is the solution? Where is the bridge? Where is the argument that is finally a nail in the coffin to the abortion debate? I don’t know; in fact, I don’t think there is one. When I look at my syllogism above, it all seems so obvious to me. When one of my pro-choice friends looks at it, they will undoubtedly nod in agreement with the major premise and look for any hole to poke in the minor premise so as to avoid the conclusion. They will posit instead:

  1. All human beings possess innate dignity.
  2. Dignity entails choice concerning one’s body.
  3. Therefore, a woman has the right to choose what is done with her body.

And the logic here seems to me—given that I share the major premise—just as airtight. Instead, I start looking for holes to poke in the minor premise, but just like my imagined pro-choice interlocutor, I can’t find them, so I have to try to make them. And making holes here puts me on shaky ground ethically and scientifically, just as it did my pro-choice interlocutor. If there is a solution, it must be a solution that extends beyond the debate over abortion itself.

Imagine if there was a political party in the United States that both affirmed the right of zygote, an embryo, or a fetus to life and affirmed the right of a pregnant woman and mother to free medical care for herself and her child, to paid maternity and paternity leave, to never having to choose between college and parenthood. Imagine if no woman ever had to make a decision between terminating her pregnancy and pursuing a future for herself. Imagine a political party that was really pro-life all the way from conception to natural death. Imagine that.

Is this a solution? I don’t know, but it seems so to me. The lower abortion rates in countries that provide better access to healthcare, college, and parental leave would seem to indicate that it’s at least a good start. It both protects the lives of the unborn and removes the reasons that women who have had abortions most commonly cite for their decisions. Would it work? It’s worth a try. What’s the worst that could happen if the next time Republicans pass a law like this they tack on a bit of access to healthcare, childcare, and leave time? Maybe they’ll accidentally make this country a better place.