Thoughts on the European Elections

Some preliminary thoughts on the European elections that conclude today. I apologize for the lack of structure here, but I wanted to offer some initial thoughts. Perhaps I’ll put this together a bit more coherently later, after the final results are in.

I think the first thing it is important to point out is that we should not be mistaken about what we are witnessing: we are watching the dismantling of the 70+ year post-WWII European order of peace and democracy. While the final results are not in, all predictions are that the far-right nationalist-populist parties are in for a big win in this election. These parties are frighteningly similar to their early twentieth-century predecessors in the National Socialists/Nazis, Fascists, and similar groups. Many of their leaders consciously quote, imitate, and model themselves on the early 20th century nationalists. Italy’s Salvini, for example, has quoted Mussolini with approval on several occasions. People like this are already in charge in Hungary, Austria, Italy, Great Britain, Poland, and elsewhere and have come disturbingly close to victory in countries like France. What they are arguing in favor of is an end to the European unity that has been based on a shared economy, a shared belief in liberal democracy, and a shared need for security since the end of World War II.

During one of my visits to Europe several years ago, I was able to travel through Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France over several days without ever stopping at a border or having to change currency. As I crossed each border, I was amazed (and still am) at how Europe had changed. These same borders which could now be freely crossed had once hosted the slaughter of millions of young men in the trenches. All of the mass delusions of nationalism they had fought, killed, suffered, and died for, one hoped, were long gone.

But then came the economic collapse of 2008 and the migrant crisis of the 2010s. And, with them, fear. And the far right parties, which had attained single digits in election after election latched onto this fear, just as their Nazi and Fascist predecessors did in the first half of the twentieth century. They used the fear of economic troubles and the fear of others to create a movement based in bizarre conspiracy theories (see Salvini’s rhetoric about the plan of Belgian bureaucrats to replace Europeans with a race of slaves) and identity politics (see, for example, the “if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere” nonsense of Britain’s May). Of course, fear is always irrational, but the fears that are being manipulated here are irrational in an extreme way; they depart from reality and enter in the realm of fantasy.

In addition to rightwing nuts manipulating these irrational fears, I believe the election of Trump in the United States plays a significant role in the current dismantling of Europe. The great strength of the United States has always been that it is a large and diverse nation separated from the rest of the world by an ocean. As a result, it has been able to play a role in world affairs that puts it in some sense outside of and even above the usual waves. We weathered the two most devastating wars in the history of the world with no damage to our mainland–in fact, with a strengthened economic and military position. As a result of the US’s ability to stand apart from the rest of the world, the President of the United States became the “leader of the free world”– a figure who is able to stand above the morass of world politics and act as a symbol of democratic values worldwide. Yes, often hypocritically–to talk of freedom while maintaining an apartheid regime in the American South, for example, is surely rank hypocrisy–but the symbolic nature of the US persisted nonetheless. America’s willingness to pay the big bills for the defense of both France and Germany (through NATO), for example, is what makes it possible for that border to be as it is today: open and free, rather than as it was just a century ago: trenches, barbwire, and bombs.

Unfortunately, it was our very strength–our ability to stand apart–that became our weakness. The relative isolation of the US and its central role in world politics makes it possible for Americans to be a uniquely myopic people. If you think this isn’t so, turn on the TV sometime to any American news network and count the number of stories about a country other than the US, then turn to a major news network in some other country (the BBC or Al Jazeera for example) and count how many news stories are about other countries. The rest of the world spends a lot more time thinking about the rest of the world. Most Americans, on the other hand, probably have no idea that there are important elections being held in Europe today or for the last several days.

This myopia made it possible for our own nationalist-populist nut to manipulate our own fears about immigration and economics. Most Americans don’t think about the rest of the world, have no awareness of it, and don’t travel outside the US. Only about a third of Americans even hold a passport (and, not surprisingly, passport holders tend to skew to the left). We elected a shrill, bumbling nincompoop who repeated “America First” and “Make America Great Again” over and over again without considering the consequences.

The consequence is that there is now no leader of the free world. There is no figure who stands above the morass. Some people have suggested that Germany’s Merkel has inherited the title. She hasn’t. She may be the last leader of a great nation still defending the validity–the necessity–of the post-WWII order, but she is in the thick of it. Germany, by its very geography, is in the center of things and always will be.

So what are we left with? Screaming, incompetent demagogues peddling conspiracy theories and snake oil. The future is bleak indeed. If we must be afraid of something, let’s be afraid of ourselves and our propensity to make terrible self-destructive decisions based on irrational fears.

The West and the Rest

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:

  1. Culturally literature
  2. Cosmopolitan
  3. 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.