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.

 

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.

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

America Needs an Education Overhaul

There are few issues more important to the future of the United States than the issue of education. It is through the nation’s educational systems that its future is being built. The boys and girls who are studying and learning in American schools today will be the men and women who will lead this country and even the world tomorrow. And yet, American students have been steadily falling behind their international counterparts in standardized test scores and overall academic performance. If we are going to do the right thing for our children and save the future for the United States, this nation needs to reorient its priorities, stop throwing money at the problem, and be willing to work hard and take the necessary steps to drastically overhaul American education.

Gallup Polls conducted in the month before each of the United States’ most recent presidential elections have found that the percentage of American voters who name education as their primary concern in the election has decreased dramatically over the last decade (Saad, “Economy is Dominant Issue for Americans as Election Nears”). Before the 2000 presidential election, 17% of voters stated that education was their number one concern. Before the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, however, a mere 5%, 3%, and 4%, respectively, statistically even numbers, said that education was their primary concern. Instead, a majority of Americans have designated issues such as defense, healthcare, and the economy as their central concerns.

While these are valid and important things to be concerned about, education is the more important issue as it forms the baseline and background for these others. To take one example, those Americans primarily concerned with defense should also be equally concerned about education as the United States requires well-educated people, especially people who can become experts in technology, science, and mathematics, fields the United States is falling behind in, if it is to maintain its global military superiority. In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made this point clear, saying “Just as DoD developed the world’s finest counterterrorism force over the past decade, we need to build and maintain the finest cyber force and operations. We’re recruiting, we’re training, we’re retaining the best and the brightest in order to stay ahead of other nations” (Panetta, “Remarks”). Without an educational system that adequately prepares young people to enter fields such as cyber operations, the United States will lose its military dominance in the next generation.

Some might wonder, in response to all of this, whether the American school systems really are all that bad. Are education systems in the United States really failing that badly to prepare students for the future and are they really falling that far behind their peers in other nations? A recent study by Public Agenda, for instance, found that most American parents “say the amount of science and math their child studies now is sufficient” (“Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce”).

The reality, however, is that the education American students are receiving is far from sufficient. “Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student,” for instance, found tat “out of 34 countries” ranked in a recent study of standardized test scores, “the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math” (Armario, “Wake-up call”). This places the United States “far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada” (ibid.). What this means for the next generation in terms of military and economic superiority is both obvious and alarming.

There is no simple solution to this problem. Americans have tried for years to merely throw money at the issue and have seen little in terms of lasting results. What is necessary is a complete overhaul of the American public education system. While holding teachers accountable, raising budgets, and other popularly proposed solutions are all part of the fabric of what it will take to made a real and lasting change for the better, they are not the underlying issue. The underlying issue and what ultimately needs the most reform is the current approach to education in America; the United States needs a revamped and updated perspective and curriculum that is able to provide the education the modern world demands. The old system, based on the ideas of philosophers of education such as John Dewey focused essentially on providing just enough learning to allow the average student to enter a workforce of laborers and servers. The future demands that we provide more than “just enough” learning, that we strive for an above average education for above average children, and that education be focused on molding innovators, creators, and thinkers (Hutchins, The Great Conversation). This overhaul will no doubt be an expensive and often painful effort that will require a great deal of sacrifice for all of us, but we are speaking about our future, our children, and I believe we can all agree no price is too high to pay to do the very best we can do for future generations of Americans.

Works Cited 

Armario, Christine. “’Wake-up call’: U.S. students trail global leaders.” MSNBC.com. 7 December 2010. Web. 9 December 2012.

Hutchins, Robert M. The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. New York: William Benton, 1952. Print.

Panetta, Leon E. “Remarks by Secretary Panetta on Cybersecurity to the Business Executives for National Security, New York City.” U.S. Department of Defense. 11 October 2012. Web. 9 December 2012.

“Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce. (cover story).” NSTA Reports! Jan. 2007: 1+. Education Research Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Saad, Lydia. “Economy is Dominant Issue for Americans as Elction Nears.” Gallup Politics. 22 October 2012. Web. 9 December 2012.