Liberal education and a free society

In a letter, written in 1813, to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson explains the steps taken by the Virginia “legislature after the Declaration of Independance” to eradicate the vestiges of the old world aristocracy that had taken hold on the American landscape.[1] First, he says, they “passed a law abolishing entails” and “this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture.” He claims that “these laws . . . laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat.”[2] This final law, not adopted by the state of Virginia, included as its central component a plan to provide for the equality of opportunity of all people through the discernment of what Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents.”[3] Opposing this “natural aristocracy” to the “Pseudo-aristocrac[ies]” of physical strength and inherited wealth and titles, Jefferson saw the cultivation of a true aristocracy as an endeavor essential the continued life and vitality of the new American Republic. By ensuring that all Americans had access to at least a rudimentary version of a liberal education, this natural aristocracy could be cultivated and prepared for positions of leadership in the republic. Simultaneously, the very process by which this natural aristocracy was discerned would allow all Americans to be provided with the foundational knowledge and inculcated with the civic virtue necessary to a citizenry that is able to sustain a free society.

In his letter to Adams, Jefferson then briefly describes the framework of the “Bill for the more general diffusion of learning” he had proposed.[4] His plan would “divide every county” of the state of Virginia “into wards of 5. or 6. miles square.” Within “each ward . . . a free school” would be established “for reading, writing and common arithmetic.” From each of these ward schools, an “annual selection” would be made “of the best subjects . . . who might receive at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school.” There would, in turn, be a selection “from these district schools . . . [of] a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught.” By means of this process of common education for all and selection of the best students for higher levels of education, Jefferson says, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”[5] Jefferson sought to supplant the aristocracy of “wealth and birth,” replacing it with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” in a single generation, through his program of public education.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson provides more detail on the plan of education he had proposed, including the sort of curriculum appropriate to students selected for each level of education and the overall goals of this program. While his letter to Adams lists only “reading, writing and common arithmetic” as the disciplines to be taught in the first level of schools, to which “every person . . . [is] entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it,”[6] his Notes on the State of Virginia indicates a decidedly wider purview for the ward schools. “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds,” writes Jefferson, “wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here.”[7] As such, there will, undoubtedly, be a focus upon the basic skills of writing, reading, and arithmetic. These schools will also, however, ensure that children’s “memories may . . . be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” The education at this initial stage is, in fact, “to be chiefly historical.”[8] Jefferson explains,

History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

This first level of education is that which will be received by all people. This is, therefore, the stage at which it is most important to instill a knowledge of their heritage and of human nature, knowledge that is essential to the development of the ability to identify and eliminate incipient tyranny.

In addition to this induction into historical knowledge, “the first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds.” This morality, writes Jefferson, is not yet to be that of “the Bible and Testament” as the “judgments” of these young children “are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.” Instead, the morality inculcated in the children should be such as is conducive to the development of that civic virtue which is necessary to members of a free society. It should, writes Jefferson, be “such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”[9]

The morality the children are to be taught, then, are the virtues of self-reliance, hard work, and responsibility.  In short, they are to be inculcated with the virtues of an industrious and freedom-loving people.

Following this basic education, most of the students will return to their homes prepared to take up the tasks both of their respective occupations as well as the preservation of a free society. Some, however, “whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning, will go on to the grammar schools, there to be instructed in the languages.”[10] In a prescient forewarning of what was to come in both the grammar schools and institutions of higher learning in the United States, Jefferson notes that “the learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe . . . but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their  example in this instance.”[11] The memory at this stage in the child’s life, “from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age,” is so “susceptible and tenacious of impressions” that “it seems precisely fitted to the powers of this period” to acquire “the most useful languages ancient and modern.”[12] In addition, “the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.” By this means, the memory will be exercised and the intellect excited. This stimulation of the mind through the activity of the acquisition of language and the contemplation of the wisdom gleaned from those texts used in language instruction preserves the mind from the “idleness” that would allow it to become “lethargic and impotent.” “As soon as they are of sufficient age,” says Jefferson, “it is supposed they will be sent on from the grammar schools to the university, which constitutes our third and last stage, there to study those sciences which may be adapted to their views.”[13]

Having explained his proposed system of education, Jefferson concludes with an explanation of the logic of his plan. One of the goals of his program is “to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.”[14] This equality of opportunity through equal access to education is of mutual benefit to both the citizen and the state. The citizen will be allowed to exercise his abilities and attain his full potential rather than languishing in a condition below his natural endowments. The state, in turn, will benefit from the education this person receives through his ability to use his talents in the service of his country.

In spite of Jefferson’s disdain for Plato’s Republic as a work filled with “whimsies, . . . puerilities, . . . unintelligible jargon . . . [and] nonsense,”[15] Jefferson’s plan is reminiscent of Plato’s plan for education and thought on the possibilities of movement from one social class to another.[16] Jefferson, however, avoids the utopianism of Plato as he does not, as Plato does, propose a radical restructuring of society, including the elimination of the family and the organic local community. Instead, Jefferson proposes a practical means by which to accomplish a similar goal.

“But of the views of this law,” Jefferson continues, “none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.”[17] Although only a relative few would directly benefit from the higher levels of education in Jefferson’s plan, all would be enabled to attain an education that would provide them with the knowledge and habits necessary to citizens of a republic and members of a free society. The rudimentary liberal education each received would make it possible for each to seek his own happiness and to contribute to the good of the nation as a whole.

While the implementation of Jefferson’s plan today is impractical as it would entail a massive and infeasible overhaul of the American public education system, there is a great deal of insight to be gained from his vision, which, in turn, can be applied to education today. Jefferson’s central goal in the first level of education, for example, is a worthy central goal for primary and secondary schools today. The dual emphasis on teaching historical knowledge and inculcating moral virtue in the course of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic is certain to provide the sort of education that a free society requires, and that students in many American schools are not being provided today. Such an education-for-liberty presents a stark contrast with the vocationalism and moral bankrupcy which currently permeate public education and are certain to produce an ignorant and ineffective electorate.

Similarly, Jefferson’s emphasis on the knowledge of language in adolescence is sound advice that could easily, and no doubt with great rewards, be implemented at the primary and secondary levels. Greek and Latin, in particular, are languages that put one in touch with the heritage of Western Civilization, grant one access to the wealth of wisdom recorded in these languages, and contribute to the development of logical thinking in children. This latter point, especially, is one that might be emphasized in response to the current clamoring after the rather nebulous and ever-shifting skill of “critical thinking.” A mastery of the English language and a fair knowledge of Latin or Greek and one additional European language seems hardly too much to ask of graduates from America’s high schools, yet it is a great deal more than is being asked now.

Ultimately, what Jefferson is proposing is a liberal education adapted to the needs and abilities of each citizen, which will, in turn, contribute to the greater good of the nation as a whole. In so doing, he undermines the pseudo-aristocracies of wealth and birth which had led to the despotisms of the old world while simultaneously avoiding the opposite extreme, which is taking hold in the United States now, of an enforced and artificial equality. Jefferson’s plan of an informed and virtuous citizenry coupled with equality of access to quality education for persons of natural talent is worthy of serious consideration today. A liberal education of the sort outlined by Jefferson is the only kind of education suited to a people who possess liberty and wish to keep it.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams–Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 389.

[2] Ibid., 389–390.

[3] Ibid., 388.

[4] Ibid., 390.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 153.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid., 156.

[9] Ibid., 154.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 154–155.

[12] Ibid., 155.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814, in Cappon, The Adams–Jefferson Letters, 432.

[16] On which, see Plato, The Republic 451–457 and 415, respectively.

[17] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 155.

Virtues or Values?

Central among the numerous problematic features of education in the United States today is the movement away from the idea of virtue and the embrace of the alternative but decadent notion of values. Although the difference between the two ideas may seem slight at first, the contrast becomes evident upon examination of the respective definitions of the terms. Value, on the one hand, implies an arbitrary and temporary emphasis upon a certain object or activity. The “value” of a dollar, for instance, has declined significantly over the last century. The “value” of gold, however, continues to climb. Value is the worth attributed to something by individuals or some consensus among a certain group. Virtue, on the other hand, refers to moral and ethical standards whose value never fluctuates. A virtue is as good in one place and time as it is in any other. Cowardice, for example, is never virtuous; in other words, cowardice is never the good, right, or fitting thing. Courage, on the other hand, is never not a virtue; it is, in short, always and forever the right thing in all situations in all places.

It can be seen from this contrast why the idea of virtue has been replaced by the notion of value by modern educators. The notion of value fits into the prevalent idea that morals are culturally contingent, that, contrary to logic, a thing can be good in one place and not in another. The very existence of virtue, on the other hand, implies two further theses against which the modern mind rebels. The first implied thesis is that human nature is immutable, meaning that it does not change over time nor from culture to culture. There are, therefore, certain ways of “being human” which conform more closely than others to human nature and are more fitting and right. These necessarily are also more conducive to human happiness and development. The second thesis, even more troubling for the modern mind, is that if virtue does indeed exist there must necessarily be an eternal, transcendent, and objective standard which forms the foundation for virtue and, of course, an eternal, transcendent Standard-Giver beyond this. If virtue is everywhere and always good, good is not merely a matter of taste but a matter of the Good, in what might be called the Platonic sense.

Throughout most of the history of the philosophy of education, the constantly emphasis by wise thinkers has been about the formation of the young through virtue. Early Christian theories of education in particular emphasized the aspect of virtue in arguing for the proper Christian stance toward pre-Christian literature. In his treatise addressed “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” St. Basil the Great launched an extensive argument that the primary means by which Christian “young men” could “derive profit from pagan literature” is in drawing from those writings their lessons in virtue. “Since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours,” he says, “and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature.” Basil’s near-contemporary St. John Chrysostom, wrote an “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children” in which he exhorts parents first and foremost to “exercise this child’s soul in virtue.” In his “Letter to Laeta,” St. Jerome exhorts a young mother to care for her daughter Paula by centering her education from a young age in exhortations to and exhibitions of virtuous behavior.

One of the most famous examples of liberal learning among the Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, presents some special insight for the current situation of modern education. In his Confessions, Augustine wonders “what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of affections, read by myself, and understood?” The rhetorical question here put has great implications for the modern movement away from teaching virtue in education. Although Augustine was extraordinarily well-educated, he found himself unable to discern what whether what he read “therein was true or certain.” He was unable to differentiate truth from falsehood because his own education lacked in the instillment of virtue. He, like so many children being educated in American schools today, was filled with interesting facts but unable to establish the meaning of these facts for his life. He, like them, was unable to find truth because the nature of the education he had received denied the very existence of truth in the proper and complete sense. Augustine was able to recover from the trauma of his education and discover truth later. How many American schoolchildren today will be able to do the same?

 

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 5: The Restoration of Western Civilization

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

A return to the earlier, and more healthy, way of viewing foreign cultures through the lens of Western Civilization is simultaneously the first and final step in a process of the restoration of proper education in Western heritage. It is the first step in that a return to the traditional Western appreciation for diversity will restore a proper view of the West itself. Western Civilization cannot be seen as merely one civilization among many without doing a significant disservice to the history of the world. If Western Civilization can once again be seen as a hugely diverse entity which absorbs what is best in other cultures and transforms what is worst, as the finest, highest, and purest expression of the universal human condition rather than the perspective merely of Europeans, a proper view of the West will have been restored.

The approach of Justin Martyr and the subsequent Church Fathers who drew upon Justin’s ideas provides a model which can be imitated in the modern world. They viewed the ideas of the pre-Christian Greeks and Romans as worthy but incomplete and, through a long process of sorting and amalgamating brought them into the fold of Christendom, and therefore of Western Civilization, in a form modified in accordance with the fundamental standards of Christian belief. Similarly, the practices and ideas of non-Western civilizations can be seen as incomplete and flawed but nonetheless noble descriptions of the human experience. These practices and ideas can then be sorted for their value in the light of the universal truth and applicability of the standard practices and ideas at the core of Western Civilization, and finally completed and taken in. The awareness must remain, however, that these ideas are not being taken in because Western Civilization itself is lacking, but because these ideas are lacking and in need of completion, a completion by which Western Civilization is, in turn, strengthened.

In addition, the return to this proper perspective in Western Civilization of other civilizations must be supplemented with an immersion of primary and secondary students as well as college undergraduates in the foundational texts of Western Civilization. A true “common core” would reflect the full range and development of Western thought including its literary, scientific, and philosophical output. Texts should be selected for study by high school and college students based upon their importance to the history and thought of Western Civilization, rather than misguided hopes of engineering a pseudo-multicultural homogeneity. Through this process, the student will learn an appreciation for his own civilization, which will allow him to authentically appreciate other civilizations. He will also acquire a knowledge of the intellectual and social history of the modern world and, succinctly, the very best that has ever been thought.

The great texts of other civilizations as well as criticisms of Western Civilization from both within and without are best introduced only after this immersion in the texts of Western Civilization has occurred for some time. It is, in fact, only at this point that a student will be able to understand these critiques and appreciate these other civilizations. Reading a criticism without knowing what is being criticized will only produce prejudice. Learning about the thoughts and practices of others without having the firm foundation of one’s own intellectual heritage is a sure recipe for a confused, facile, and more than likely unsympathetic view of others.

The same is true of an appreciation for minority groups within Western Civilizations, such as African-Americans or the Jews of Europe. Their experience has been as much formed and informed by the history and thought of Western Civilization as have those of the majority populations and they, in turn, have had a significant effect on the development of Western Civilization. Once the wider context of Western Civilization is understood, the experience of smaller groups within it can at least be fully appreciated. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one demonstrative example. There, King argues against the tyranny of the majority within the United States, itself one of the great exemplars of the ideals of Western Civilization, using arguments from the history of Western Civilization, such as the early Christian martyrs, and the thought of Western Civilization, such as the concept of natural law. An approach to history which wrenches African-American history out of its Western context renders the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and indeed the entire Civil Rights struggle in the United States, unintelligible. In turn, the experience of African-Americans has done a great deal to shape subsequent developments both in the United States and in Western thought more generally. The student ignorant of these contributions will also experience the world as unintelligible.

For the American student who is not educated in Western Civilization and who does not come to view the world and himself through the lens of this civilization, the entire world, in fact, is unintelligible. “Know thyself” was one of the most profound mottos of ancient Greece. To “know thyself” one must first know the forces, social, political, and ideological, which have been one’s shaping forces. One should, in addition, be exposed to those ideas which best describe the nature and situation of man in any social, political, or ideological context. With an understanding of self comes an understanding of the world. A thorough grounding in the history and thought of Western Civilization, far from inculcating notions of innate European superiority or any such nonsense, will allow young people to see the world from the standpoint of a thorough understanding and an appreciation for authentic diversity.

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

Race and Representation in the Gilded Age: Popular Culture and Depictions of Marginalized Racial Groups

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth saw the rise of the first genuine popular culture in the United States. New advances in technology coupled with an increase of leisure time and extra money among a significant portion of the American population made this popular culture possible. Popular culture exerted a major influence on American life as its various mediums were used to create a cultural homogeneity which had not previously existed as well as to reinforce white cultural hegemony through propagating stereotypes about marginal groups.

An important distinction that must be made is that between folk culture and popular culture. As American cultural commentator Dwight Macdonald pointed out, “folk art grew from below” as the “spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people” who were “without the benefit of High Culture.”1 In other words, in the absence of access to more refined artistic and cultural forms, folk art was a natural aesthetic outgrowth from people who wished to express themselves artistically. Popular culture, on the other hand, Macdonald goes on, “is imposed from above.”2 Its creation and dissemination are controlled by capitalists who “exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class-rule.”3 Popular culture, then, acts as “an instrument of political domination.”4 In this way, popular culture becomes the vehicle for the imposition of cultural homogeneity and the maintenance of hegemony.

The growth of the concept of “whiteness” in opposition to the ostensibly existentially opposed concept of “blackness” during the Gilded Ages provides one clear example of a case in which popular culture served this function. Richard L. Hughes, a historian whose work has focused on the history of American culture and society, has pointed out how the creation and dissemination of stereotypes about blacks created a sense of unity among the white audiences who viewed minstrel shows. According to Hughes, portrayals of blacks in popular culture “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”5 Blacks were often portrayed in minstrel shows and other venues of popular culture in ways that were comically over-the-top. Black characters were often bumbling, hopelessly ignorant, and obsessed with sex. An audience at a minstrel show might consist of individuals who were immigrants or the children of immigrants from such diverse nations as Italy, Poland, and England, nations with different languages, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions. The black, as he was portrayed in caricature at the minstrel show, presented such an obvious contrast with anything that any of them would consider normal or acceptable, however, that the contrast created a sense of unity among those of European descent. Thus, the concept of “whiteness” came to encompass a broad swathe of people with little else in common than ancestors who had come from the same continent and who now defined themselves in opposition to the similarly fabricated concept of “blackness.”

One ironic feature of popular culture, in the light of its functions and effects as a vehicle for white solidarity and black marginalization, is that many of the elements of popular culture derived from earlier expressions of black folk culture. Ragtime, for example, a form of music and dance that was particularly popular among young people during the Gilded Age, was derived from black folk music and dance. In other words, the origins of ragtime were in what Dwight Macdonald identified as genuine folk art; it was the product of people whose social status isolated them from the cultivated aesthetics of High Culture but who simultaneously felt the need for artistic expression. This authentic folk culture, however, was transformed into popular culture through its appropriation and adaptation by whites. Ragtime’s origins in black culture served both to attract the attention and cultivate the awe of white youths as well as to excite the repugnance of members of older generations. Ragtime was seen as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.6 The lyrics of ragtime songs, as its detractors never tired of pointing out, included such themes as “‘hot town,’ ‘warm babies,’ and ‘blear-eyed coons’ armed with ‘blood-letting razors’” as well as other topics similarly offensive to bourgeois tastes.7 In addition, the dances associated with these songs often involved jerking movements of the hips and close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, which appeared lascivious and immoral in contrast with the more tame and subdued dances common among previous generations of the American bourgeoisie. All of these elements as well as their origins in African and African-American culture were viewed, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, a professor of American history, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.8 This identification of black culture with immorality was also used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and propagate racism, reinforcing the established atmosphere of subjugation and marginalization.

Reactions among African-Americans to the acquisition and transformation of black folk culture by white capitalists whose product was primarily targeted to audiences of white youth varied. Some African-Americans sought to work within the new milieu that was afforded to them by popular culture in order to secure a modicum of social respectability and a means of wealth acquisition that was not formerly available to them. Ernest Hogan, for instance, an African-American man who was one of the founding figures of ragtime, built his career on writing songs that portrayed stereotypes of blacks. One of his most popular songs, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”9 Shortly before his death in 1909, Hogan expressed some ambivalence about his role in creating ragtime and about that song in particular. “With nothing but time on my hands now, I often wonder if I was right or wrong,” he told a friend.10 He concluded that in spite of the negative stereotypes such songs helped to propagate, the popularization of black folk culture which he played such an important role in was, in the end, a great boon to the culture itself, which “would have been lost to the world” had it not been popularized, as well as to the many black songwriters whose careers he made possible.11

Other African-Americans, however, particularly those of the middle class, viewed ragtime, along with minstrelsy and vaudeville, in overwhelmingly negative terms. According to historian Matthew Mooney in his survey of responses to American popular music in the first quarter of the twentieth century, “popular music in all its permutations was often subject to sweeping condemnations by … arbiters of Black middle-class propriety.”12 Black members of the bourgeoisie saw popular culture as a vehicle for “demeaning racial stereotypes” which served to undermine the progress that African-Americans had made since the Civil War and emancipation.13 In response to the new popular culture, the African-American bourgeoisie sought to displace blame for the creation and popularization of such musical forms as ragtime from blacks alone to the uncultured in general, black and white alike.14 They also sought to cultivate an appreciation for and African-American participation in venues of High Culture, such as more respectable forms of music and performance like opera. In large part, the vociferous opposition to popular culture espoused by many in the black bourgeoisie arose from a desire to minimize differences between themselves and whites by distancing themselves from supposedly low-class blacks and from traditional black culture. In so doing, they hoped to attain the measure of social respectability that might result from identification with the values and mores of the white bourgeoisie and thereby uplift the black race in general. A noteworthy similarly between those African-American bourgeois who opposed popular culture and those African-Americans such as Ernest Hogan who actively participated in it is that each attributes its respective stance on the issue to the desire of blacks to enter the American mainstream by attaining prestige and wealth. In spite of the divergence in approaches, the motivation was essentially identical for both parties.

Such prestige and wealth was also the motivation for those Native Americans who chose to participate in popular culture venues which presented the stereotype of the Indian as a warlike savage. Included among Native Americans who participated in Wild West shows, for example, are such prominent figures as Sitting Bull and Black Elk.15 According to Litwicki, the stereotyped roles in which Native Americans were depicted in the Wild West shows and which such Native American participants in those shows took part in “while degrading in many respects, were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within.”16 Indeed, unlike their black counterparts in minstrelsy and vaudeville who were forced to behave in ways that were entirely the product of white imaginations and which distorted the nature of black culture to an extreme degree, Native Americans were often able and delighted in the opportunity to share authentic representations of their heritage and lifestyle with white audiences, including their prowess as “warriors, riders, marksmen, and hunters” as well as traditional “dances, songs, and other aspects of their cultures.”17 Nonetheless, however, Native Americans were subject to the same disfiguring white consciousness as African-Americans and were expected to behave in stereotyped ways. Through their representations in popular culture, both Native Americans and African-Americans were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified the continued marginalization of these groups in their exclusion from bourgeois respectability. This subjugation and marginalization frequently determined the course of government policy. The Wild West shows’ depictions of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive, for example, justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate their traditional ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units by removing tribes from their ancestral homelands and children from their families, forcing young Native Americans to receive propagandistic education in which they were encouraged to act in accordance with white social expectations, and encouraging Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural white farmers.18

Similarly, the stereotyped depictions of blacks in popular culture as comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous and the idea of a “blackness” which differed ontologically and stood opposed existentially to “whiteness” which these depictions created and perpetuated justified the exclusion of African-Americans from the white mainstream of American society as well as the separation of blacks from whites more generally. This exclusion and separation was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.19

The origins, content, and effect of popular culture in the Gilded Age presents an important comparison with that of more recent American popular culture. Hip hop music, for instance, presents an insightful parallel to the story of ragtime. Just as ragtime emerged from black folk art, hip hop music began as a genuinely folk cultural form among African-American youth in impoverished urban centers. Just as ragtime was adopted, digested, and popularized by the incipient popular culture industry of the late nineteenth century, hip hop similarly became a product of popular culture at the hands of bourgeois, and generally white, capitalists. Both were viewed as repellent by parents and others of older generations because of their perceived immoral content and link with the criminality associated with black culture, both were consumed by eager white youths, and both served to bring a measure of fame, wealth, and even respectability to certain African-American individuals involved in their production while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes of African-Americans more generally. In addition to this clear parallel between ragtime and hip hop, depictions of other marginal groups in contemporary popular culture also present interesting and insightful comparisons. Just as depictions of Native Americans in popular culture served to justify their exclusion from the mainstream of American society and the systematic destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the federal government, depictions of Hispanics in contemporary popular culture often reinforce stereotypes of Hispanics as ignorant, religious to the point of superstition, linked to the criminal drug trade, and, in the case of women, extremely sexualized. These depictions, in turn, influence laws and policies pertinent to, for example, immigration and education.

The impact that stereotyped depictions can have on laws, on lives, and on the individual psyches of members of marginalized and subjugated groups as well as on those of their hegemons should be carefully considered by the producers, distributors, and consumers of popular culture. The nearly ubiquitous presence of popular culture today makes a thorough examination of the influence of its content all the more important. Such an examination is most properly conducted in the light of the insights that can be afforded by an understanding of the origins of American popular culture in the Gilded Age and its perpetual use since that time as a tool for the creation of a false cultural homogeneity and the imposition of a cultural hegemony which is far more the product of the imaginations and aspirations of the moneyed classes and establishment power structure than an authentic democratic movement in aesthetics.

Notes


1 Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in John Storey, ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 1998), 23.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.

6 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 118.

7 “Musical Impurity,” Etude (January 1900): 16.

8 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.

9 Ibid., 196.

10 Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 118.

11 Ibid., 120.

12 Matthew Mooney, “An ‘Invasion of Vulgarity’: American Popular Music and Modernity in Print Media Discourse, 1900-1925,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture (Hollywood and Los Angeles: Press Americana, 2010), 7.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 8.

15 Litwicki, 202.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.

19 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.

Responses to Darwinism in the Gilded Age

Just as the Copernican Revolution several centuries earlier had displaced the earth and its inhabitants from the center of the universe, so the Darwinism of the nineteenth century unseated man from the throne he had claimed for himself. With the earth removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus and man removed from the zenith of the created order by Darwin, the old understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos was overthrown. The task taken up by thinkers of the generation after Darwin was to understand the implications of Darwin’s theory for humanity and to formulate a cohesive philosophy capable of imbuing human life with meaning while taking the new scientific discoveries into account. In the words of historian Ruth C. Crocker, as in European thought, “American intellectual life in the Gilded Age is often viewed primarily in terms of a response to Darwinism.”1

Perhaps the most ubiquitous element of this response was a newfound impetus for the idea of progress. Westerners, particularly Americans, had made the idea of progress a central aspect of their self-understanding since the Enlightenment. In fact, Darwin himself was one of the inheritors of this idea and his theories in large part presuppose and depend upon it. In short, “the idea of evolution gets some of its moral, social, and even cosmic significance from its implication that the general motion in the world of living things, perhaps in the universe, is a progress from lower to higher forms.”2 All of the various Gilded Age responses to Darwin’s ideas, no matter how much they may differ from each other on their particulars, share in this belief in and focus upon progress. In their beliefs about what constituted progress and precisely what man and the cosmos were progressing toward, however, the various responses differed radically from one another.

European responses to Darwinism were often attempts at a synthesis with Hegelianism, another philosophy, very popular and influential throughout Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on the idea of progress. According to historian Richard Tarnas, “metaphysically inclined scientists such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to conjoin the scientific picture of evolution with philosophies similar to Hegel.”3 These philosophies tended to see the process of evolution as oriented toward a divinely-directed goal and a point of unity between God, the cosmos, and man in the future. American responses, however, as well as later European responses, tended in the opposite direction of denying the possibility of formulating any “metaphysical system claiming the existence of a universal order accessible to human awareness” and emphasizing the disunity, and even enmity, between human beings and between all creatures.

The philosophy of pragmatism, the product of the thought of American philosophers and psychologists William James and John Dewey, which “question[ed] whether there was such a thing as universal truth,” is one example of the former type of response to Darwinism.4 According to James, Dewey, and the other pragmatists, ideas and beliefs were similar to the biological components of a species. There were none that were true in an absolute sense, or at least discernible as such as by biological beings such as humans, but some were “true” in a contingent sense in that they had demonstrated value for the current state of the species. This idea cast all ideas, as well as the very concept of and search for truth, into question.

Social Darwinism is perhaps the greatest example of the latter type of American response to Darwinism in its emphasis on the competition between individual men as well as between races and social classes. One of the most extreme proponents of a philosophy of pure Social Darwinism was the sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner spent a large portion of his career defending the thesis that social policy should adhere to the concept of survival of the fittest. To this end, Sumner attacked any program which attempted to aid the poor through charity or to redistribute wealth as contrary to nature and detrimental to the future of humanity. He believed that “feeding the hungry and unemployed” impeded the progress of human evolution and that “unfit people” should be allowed “to die, or at least not reproduce.”5 Although Sumner was one of the most outspoken and extreme advocates of Social Darwinism, the philosophy itself was popular throughout the American elite and was used by such figures as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to justify their tenacious pursuit of financial success to the detriment of others.

The various reactions to and extensions of Darwinism during the Gilded Age, including in the European attempts at a synthesis between Darwin and Hegel, as well as in American pragmatism and Social Darwinism, all demonstrate the disorienting effect Darwinism had on Western thought at the close of the 19th century. For some, as with the pragmatists, this displacement in ideas was impetus to abandon the very search for truth. For many, such as the Social Darwinists, this displacement prompted a kind of conservative synthesis, in which older ideas were combined with Darwinism in order to present a firmer ideological basis for the status quo. For all, Darwinism forever changed the nature of Western thought.

Notes

1 Ruth C. Rocker, “Cultural and Intellectual Life in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 219.


2 Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 437.

3Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 383. 

4 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 144.

5 Edwards, 144.

 

Bibliography


Calhoun, Charles W. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Editor. The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II. Chicago: William Benton, 1952.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

Popular Culture and Race in the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age saw the rise of a culture of leisure and mass consumerism unprecedented in history.1 By the beginning of the 20th century, the cultural scene of the United States was dominated by sports such as baseball, publicly accessible events such as vaudeville shows, and the consumer goods now widely available in the department stores springing up across the country. Americans had more time and more access to diversion than ever before and they took advantage of this leisure and access. This is especially true of young Americans, who flocked to the new amusement parks, stores, and shows, and took up the new sports and dance crazes of the era.2

In the Gilded Age, as now, the youth were the biggest consumers of popular culture and in large part determined its contents. Also as now, members of the previous generations saw youth culture as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.3 Ragtime, for instance, was a popular form of music and dance for young people of the Gilded Age that received a great deal of condemnation from elders who saw the associated dances, which involved close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, as lascivious.

One source of the criticism leveled at popular culture was the origin of many of its elements, including especially music and dance, in black culture. Older generations saw this influence of black culture, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.4 Ironically, however, in spite of these origins in black culture, American popular culture was often used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and continue the culture of racism, subjugation and marginalization. One popular song, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike To Me.”5 While the influence of blacks on later popular music and dance, including rock and especially hip hop, would allow African-Americans to enter the mainstream of American culture and society and, arguably, serve to undermine and eliminate racism among young Americans, ragtime and related elements of popular culture more often served the opposite purpose and instead acted as a vehicle for the propagation of racism during the Gilded Age.

Aspects of popular culture which did not derive from black culture also, similarly, served the ends of racism. Sports, for instance, were intended to cultivate and convey a sense of the importance of masculinity, from which concept black men were explicitly excluded.6 This exclusion was made tangible through the segregation of sports fans in the audience at sporting events as well as through the ban on participation of blacks in popular sports like baseball.7 When blacks were allowed to participate in popular cultural events, such as the popular theater of the era, it was generally for the purpose of reinforcing stereotypes.8 As a result, they were generally placed in demeaning roles and expected to act in accordance with white expectations.

American popular culture of the Gilded Age also served to reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans. Popular Wild West shows, such as the famous one run by Buffalo Bill, depicted Native Americans as warlike savages.9 While, as Litwicki points out, depictions of Indians and the stereotypes attached to them “were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within” Native Americans were nonetheless subject to the same disfiguring American consciousness as blacks.10 Both groups were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified their continued marginalization.
The racism depicted in and reinforced by American popular culture served to justify the continued oppression of blacks and Native Americans in reality. The stereotypes of blacks as a comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous “other,” for instance, justified continuing their separation from the white mainstream of American society. This marginalization and perpetual status as the ontological “other” was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.11 Similarly, the depiction of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate native ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units, such as was attempted with the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which law sought to force Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural whites.12

The increased leisure time of Americans coupled with the new commodification of culture in the Gilded Age to create the United States’ first true popular culture. Through the popularization of stereotypes, American popular culture of the Gilded Age served to justify the continued marginalization and subjugation of oppressed groups such as Native Americans and blacks. One great irony of this new youth culture is that much of its content derived from the culture of the very groups whose oppression it sanctioned.

Notes

1 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 117.

2 Ibid., 118.

3 Ibid.

4 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.

5 Ibid., 196.

6 Edwards, 114.

7 Litwicki, 200.

8 Ibid., 191-2.

9 Ibid., 202.

10 Ibid.

11 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.

12 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.