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.

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 by proposing my own solution to the problem.