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.


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