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.

 

The power of the great books

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been around small children that humans naturally crave the security of a familiar and nonthreatening environment. While this innate human tendency is most pronounced in small children, it follows all of us into adulthood and throughout our lives. In the same way that a child might bring a beloved toy or blanket along with him to act as a source of comfort in an unfamiliar environment, so most adults choose to partake of books and television which reinforce the views they already hold. The Pew Research Center, for example, discovered in a recent study that most political liberals in the United States listen to, watch, and read their news from media outlets that skew to the left while American political conservatives tend to consume media with a distinctively conservative bent.

It is a unique strength of an educational program based in the great books that the student is required by the very nature of the great books themselves to broaden his mind by reading literature that, often even when he agrees with the author, presents a challenge to his presuppositions and preconceived notions, and sometimes even his most certain convictions. While the students’ beliefs will not necessarily be changed, as beliefs are terribly difficult things to change in a person, there is no doubt that they will be clarified and that the students will walk away with a greater sense of the complexity of a topic and the diversity of positions available on that topic. In addition, he will have developed an appreciation for even those positions to which he is opposed, recognizing in them some aspect of or commentary upon the universal human condition.

This is an accurate summary of my own experience over the past semester as I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in those great books which take up the topic of history. Having read widely in the history of thought on history over these four months, I have been able to hear from some of the greatest minds of the Western tradition their thoughts on this uniquely Western idea that is history, allowing them to speak for themselves and to elucidate upon their own experience of and meditations upon the subject.

The range and diversity of possible positions has been one rather jarring feature of this reading. Given the great differences between, for example, St. Augustine, on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other, it has occasionally been difficult to understand how each of them could be talking about the same thing. While Augustine sees the guiding hand of providence behind each movement in history, Marx sees instead the interplay of economic, and therefore solely material, forces, a wholly different moving force in history. Yet again, there is Niccolo Machiavelli, a thinker of equal eminence and erudition when compared to either Augustine or Marx, who raises his hand to object to both and assert rather that Fate of any sort can indeed be resisted by any man whose “valour has … been prepared to resist her” and whose “defences have … been raised to constrain her.” Still more thinkers, of no less excellence and import, might chime in with any number of other positions on the matter, running across a great array from freedom to fatalism, each arguing in favor of his position with great gusto and compelling evidence.

As Leo Strauss noted in his 1959 essay “What is Liberal Education?,” it comes as a surprise to some, upon approaching the great books, to realize that “the greatest minds do not all tell us the same things regarding the most important themes; the community of the greatest minds is rent by discord and even by various kinds of discord.” It might, at this point, be tempting to fall into the sleepy indifference of relativism or, for those with a personality more caffeinated than that of the relativist, to abandon the great books altogether as hopelessly confused and irreconcilable. Hopelessly confused and irreconcilable they may be, but the answer is certainly not the slumber of relativism nor the despair of intellectual defeat.

On the contrary, in encountering this great diversity of well-reasoned opinions on the topic of history I have been afforded a tremendous opportunity to refine my own viewpoint by taking into consideration the various challenges and alternatives to it. In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” While it may be going too far to claim, as Nietzsche does, that all philosophy is really biography, there is a certain element of truth in this claim. Stated with less polemic and more fairness, it might be said that all philosophy is the result of a particular individual’s attempt to extrapolate from his unique subjective experience of human life in the world to the universal, general, and objective nature of human life in the world. This is true also of one’s philosophy of history.

Over the past 16 weeks, I have taken up and considered the philosophy of history espoused by a significant number of admirable thinkers, including ancient Greeks like Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, Romans like Marcus Aurelius, Christians of the Middle Ages such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and finally early modern and modern thinkers of great diversity, including Marx, Sir James George Frazer, Johan Huizinga, Pascal, and Karl Barth. It would be difficult to enumerate and elucidate the effect each has individually had upon my thought on history. Collectively, however, even without my thought on history having dramatically changed during this period of study, their effect has been tremendous. They have allowed me to recognize the limitations of my own worldview while opening my mind to the appreciation of others, and therefore of the human experience as a whole, and this is perhaps the most important thing any book, no matter how great, can do for a person.

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 1: Western Civilization and Higher Education

The Michigan Department of Education is not alone among state departments of education in its adoption of these multicultural requirements. Standards in most states have reflected these trends for the past several decades and continued to move evermore in the direction of a multiculturalism which sees the uniqueness of Western Civilization as its primary enemy. The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by all but a few states serve as a representative example of the widespread movement away from an education in Western Civilization at the primary and secondary levels. Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects provides a set of “text exemplars” which are intended to demonstrate the sort of literature a student is expected to read at each grade level.1

Confining analysis of this document to only those sections which designate works to be read in high school (grades 9-12), for the sake of brevity, provides an ample demonstration of the denigration of Western Civilization current in American education. While some of the great works of Western Civilization are included, such as Homer’s Odyssey (though, inexplicably, not the Iliad),2 William Shakespeare’s Macbeth,3 Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,4 and the Declaration of Independence,5 there are many others which are conspicuously absent.6 Mark Twain, for example, arguably the greatest of American authors, and certainly one of the most important, is entirely absent from the recommended reading for high school. He and others like him have been replaced by some rather perplexing selections.

Included among the “text exemplars” for high school freshmen and sophomores, for example, is Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club, which focuses on a group of women who are immigrants, or the daughters of immigrants, from China living in San Francisco.7 While Tan’s book may be a very good novel, it would be a stretch of the imagination to class it for either quality or importance in a list alongside the works of Homer, Ovid, Kafka, and Steinbeck. It would be a stretch of the imagination to the breaking point to consider Tan’s work part of a “common core” of knowledge which all graduates from high schools in the United States should be expected to possess. Yet this is precisely what the designers of the Common Core State Standards have done. Short of a desperate multiculturalism which grasps for representatives from every minority available in order to concoct a facade of inclusivism, there is no sound explanation for the inclusion of The Joy Luck Club in the Common Core State Standards. If the authors of the Common Core felt that selections representative of Chinese culture must be included, why not include selections from The Analects of Confucius or Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, classics of the Chinese literary and philosophical canon? Neither are anywhere to be found in the “text exemplars.” The closest the Common Core comes to these classics of Chinese civilization is the inclusion of a short poem by the eighth century Chinese poet Li Po.8

The choice of a story about Chinese immigrants to the United States over authentic representations of indigenous Chinese cultures becomes evident when other works on the list are examined. Several of the more recent works recommended in the Common Core are about the experiences of recent immigrants to the United States from non-Western nations, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake,9 a novel about immigrants to the United States from India; Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,”10 an essay about her mother’s difficulties in speaking Standard American English; and Rudolfo Anaya’s “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,”11 an essay in which he decries the fact that American poetry is American rather than Mexican. The message of these and the other “text exemplars” like them is clear when viewed as a set: the United States must adjust to the influx of immigrants from non-Western civilizations rather than expecting the immigrants to adjust to their newly-adopted homeland. Placing these texts alongside the foundational texts of Western Civilization and of the United States creates an effect which makes all them appear equally valid and important in the mind of a teenager being exposed to all of them for the first time simultaneously.

Among the most disconcerting of the selections of this sort are those that also intend to exhibit to the student a wildly different set of values and virtues from the traditional ethics of Western Civilization, or of any of the world’s great civilizations for that matter. Cristina Garcia’s 1992 novel Dreaming in Cuban is one such book. 12 The novel, which focuses on immigrants to the United States from Cuba, contains a number of scenes of debauchery and is, in parts, nearly pornographic.13 This is the sort of thing the architects of the Common Core have placed on a list of recommended reading for high schoolers alongside Chaucer, de Cervantes, Austen, Poe, and Hemingway.

Even when a student is introduced to fundamental texts of the Western and American traditions, the exposure is one that is formulated to encourage the student to greet the text with suspicion and derision. There is, for example, no indication given that a high school student will read the Constitution of the United States in its entirety at any point in his education. Instead, the student will read only the Bill of Rights and two highly critical, and factually dubious, commentaries.14 The representative text offered by the Common Core authors from one of these commentaries, written by Akhil Reed Amar, focuses on this nearly slanderous claim of more than questionable facticity:

These two small problems [referring to aspects of the apportionment clause], centering on the seemingly innocent words “among” and “Persons” quickly spiral out into the most vicious words of the apportionment clause: “adding three fifths of all other persons.” Other persons here meant other than free persons—that is, slaves. Thus, the more slaves a given state’s master class bred or bought, the more seats the state could claim in Congress, for every decade in perpetuity.

The Philadelphia draftsmen camouflaged this ugly point as best they could, euphemistically avoiding the S-word and simultaneously introducing the T-word—taxes—into the equation.15

Far from being treated to an explication of the genius of the Founding Fathers in their creation of a new nation and its government by their education in and meditation upon the greatest political thought in the history of the world (that is, the political thought of the Western tradition), students are instead introduced to the Constitution via the loaded term “master class” and a derogatory reference to the Founding Fathers as “the Philadelphia draftsmen” in the course of a misleading discussion of the three-fifths compromise. Admittedly, a discussion of the justness of the three-fifths compromise might be the makings of a worthwhile exercise in critical thinking for the students. A balanced and honest account, however, would also inform the students that every civilization in the history of mankind has practiced slavery. It would also relate to them that the only civilization to abolish slavery on its own impetus was Western Civilization. Every other civilization which still exists in the modern world has abolished slavery under pressure from the West. Amar, of course, fails to mention this.

The other commentary on the Constitution to which American high school students are to be subjected under the Common Core is no better. This commentary, by Linda R. Monk, goes further than Amar’s; not only were the Founding Fathers consumed by their racism, as Amar informs us, they were also misogynists:

But who are “We the People”? This question troubled the nation for centuries. As Lucy Stone, one of America’s first advocates for women’s rights, asked in 1853, “We the People”? Which ‘We the People’? The women were not included.” Neither were white males who did not own property, American Indians, or African Americans—slave or free.16

Ironically, in this statement, Monk has sided with the Supreme Court justices who decided that Dred Scott was his master’s property over the interpretation of Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, the high school students being indoctrinated with this anti-American polemic will not be educated well enough to understand the irony. At the same time the student is being introduced to Western Civilization and to his American heritage, he is being inculcated with dishonest criticisms of them and inundated by views of their supposed “limitation,” to use the Michigan Department of Education’s word. He is unwittingly being used to further perpetuate their ongoing dissolution.

 

Notes

1 Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks, http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf.

2 Ibid., 101.

3 Ibid., 111.

4 Ibid., 140.

5 Ibid., 164.

6 It worth noting, in addition, that, if the textbooks which have thus far have been printed in accordance with the Common Core State Standards are any indicator, almost none of these works will be read in full. In his book The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case Against the Common Core, for example, Terrence O. Moore, a former professor at Hillsdale College and principal of Atlanta Classical Academy, examines the contents of several of these textbooks. One example provided is a textbook of British literature which features 17 pages on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only three and a half of which actually feature text from the novel itself. The indication is that students will be reading very short selections from these texts, rather than conducting any in-depth study of particularly important works. See Terrence O. Moore, The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case Against the Common Core (2013), 174-180.

7 Common Core State Standards, Appendix B, 108.

8 Ibid., 157.

9 Ibid., 152.

10 Ibid., 170.

11 Ibid., 171.

12 Ibid., 152.

13 Many of the greatest works of Western Civilization, books which a student should undoubtedly read, contain scenes of sexual and other forms of immorality. Dreaming in Cuban is not objectionable, then, merely on the grounds that it contains gratuitous descriptions of acts of sexual immorality. The rule of thumb for differentiating the acceptably obscene from the distastefully pornographic is the purpose of the scene itself. If the sex acts depicted are intended to make some larger, more important point, or to stand as a symbol with deeper meaning, they can be accepted as an integral aspect of the story. If the sex acts depicted, however, are depicted merely to titillate the reader or are depicted in a way that far surpasses need the depiction is almost certainly pornographic.

14 Common Core State Standards, Appendix B, 166-167.

15 Ibid., 176.

16 Ibid., 95.

 

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest

Satisfaction, Distraction, and the Human Condition

One of the most remarkable features of the age we live in is that the most meaningful and important things in the lives of individuals and societies — things like religion, ethics, and education — must struggle for relevance against a tide of nihilism. The comfort which has come with the satisfaction of all of the basic material needs of humans in the modern world along with the various distractions that have been invented to occupy and pacify the human mind have made the task of educators, missionaries, and anyone else who still believes in the importance of ideas perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Whereas Christians of earlier generations had to confront the passionately held beliefs of those with rival philosophies and religions, Christians today must confront an enemy which is far more destructive, a sort of passion for apathy, or what might appropriately and simply be called nihilism.

It is a universal truth of the human condition, elucidated by St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions, that “the human soul on earth is always restless.”1 The combination of satisfaction and distraction in the modern world, however, has provided a seemingly endless string of temporary alleviations for this restlessness, preventing the restless human soul from ever finally reaching a point of satiation or boredom with worldly things. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven,” not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with wealth but because the rich man is so entrapped by his wealth that he fails to search after something higher and more ultimately satisfactory.2

The rich man of Christ’s statement, who is nearly synonymous with modern man generally, has separated himself from the human condition and so, in a sense, from his own human nature. He does not “redeem the time” by seeking to live a life of meaning and significance but instead merely passes the time.3 As Henry David Thoreau pointed out already about those around him in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”4 Most of these “games and amusements” have assumed a nature that is unrelated to the life of man in the truest sense of that phrase. As Fr. William F. Lynch has pointed out, modern man has “create[d] a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”5

One of the oldest forms of play, and the most essential, is the communal play of religious ritual. Religious ritual, however, is not a mere amusement, unlike the play of modern man. Just as the play of children, such as the care little girls give to their baby dolls or the war games of boys, is a kind of preparation for the sorts of tasks they will have to encounter as adults, liturgy is a form of pure play for the soul. Fr. Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and thinker, once wrote, “it [the soul] must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.”6

Even when modern man does find himself, usually through accident or coercion, confronting something of significance, such as one of the great books, he refuses to confront it with his whole being. He confronts it as if he were a neutral observer. As Michael Vander Weele writes, there has been an “attempt to defuse reading by separating it from the rest of life.”7 We must, however, “read with our lives.”8 Modern man has forgotten the fundamental truth enunciated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “God and the devil are fighting … and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9

The first and most basic question, then, for the Christian, for the educator, for anyone interested in a life of thought and meaning, is what to do to overcome this indifference to the great existential questions. The only really viable answer to that question is to live such a life oneself. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps more than any other well-known figure of the last hundred years embodied and most succinctly stated this principle: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. … We need not wait to see what others do.”10

1 Michael Vander Weele, “Reader-Response Theories,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 128.
2 Matthew 19:24 (King James Version).
3 Ephesians 5:16 (KJV).
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ch. 1.
5 Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.
6 Fr. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, http://fdlc.org/Liturgy_Resources/Guardini/Chapter5.htm (accessed 12 November 2013).
7 Weele, 128.
8 Ibid.
9 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book III, Chapter 3.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 158.