Sunday, March 25, 2007

Deconstructing Multicultural Education

I've been a bit unfair in recent posts to those academics who wanted to make the canon multicultural. It should be obvious that I object not to their goals, but that I am disappointed with the relative poverty of most cultural education in America. This might be nobody's fault in particular. To be honest, I'm fairly irritated with both armies in the so-called 'Culture Wars', and could be called a conscientious objector.

However, I've unfairly characterized the advocates of multicultural education as being totally uninterested in aesthetics. So, I would like to give a reading of what they wanted to accomplish, in their own words, and try to be a bit fairer than I have been so far. The text I would like to pick apart is entitled:

"Feminism, Multiculturalism, and the Colonial Tradition" By: Paul Lauter.
Lauter is editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature and a well-respected pioneer in multicultural education. This essay, from 1991, is considered a classic. Unfortunately, it's not online!

Lauter begins by explaining that he will offer a history of the development of feminist and multicultural education in America, but begs us to forgive him his 'grand narrative'. No problem there. He begins by telling us that '25 or so years back (so around 1965)- the demand of feminists and multiculturalists was for access.' Great women and non-white writers had been largely excluded from the canon and the curriculum. Lauter had a top-notch education and, as he jokes, "I had read black writers- all three of them" because the curriculum was so limited even in the Ivy Leagues.

Let me make it clear that my criticism isn't with greater inclusion. In fact, I guess you could say that I still think the canon is entirely too limited. However, I do think that the primary criterion for inclusion should be artistic merit, as determined by cultivated scholars.

So, basically, here's where I disagree with both sides in the Culture Wars. The conservative argument here is generally: If there are only three black writers in the canon, then so be it. The idea being that the canon is not the place for affirmative action. But, I would disagree with the claim that the canon has been free of political interests. As Lauter points out, the architects of the 19th and 20th century curriculums saw it as their goal to promote Western Christian Culture, which is not the same thing as a canon that is blind to all but merit. As Lauter explains: "There seemed, in short, to be a politics to the canon."

But, I don't exactly agree with Lauter either. He tends to reduce the canon to mere politics, which doesn't really work for me. At one point, he uses Melville as an example of how political the canon was. His point is that Melville wasn't recognized as a great writer until a group of aspiring critics promoted Melville as a means of validating their own authority. But, this case holds up until you actually read Melville! And especially if you compare him to his contemporaries. So, if the canon has been infected by politics, it isn't merely political.

Besides, Lauter takes it for granted that the canon is political, but shouldn't his goal be to remove its political biases altogether? People who talk about poltical biases often argue that they are somehow innate to human beings and that we can only acknowledge them, not overcome them. But, is that really the case? Isn't the point of all cultural education to broaden our understanding of the world and overcome our own biases? Often cultural education encourages a sort of cultural ghettoism in which people only expose themselves to the works of their own culture and claim some deeper affiliation with that art than the rest of us can have. Lauter and I both despise the essentialism of much multicultural education, which often amounts to: 'If you're a ____, of course you'll want to read books by _____s!'

Later continues: "If so much of such interest was left out of the Western Civilization course, what confidence could we have in the narrative we were presenting?" I can definitely sympathize with this statement. Of course, this might always be a problem with a two semester course that aims at teaching the entirety of history. Certainly, mutating the Western Civilization course into World Civilizations has mostly added new sections to be given the short shrift. Maybe what I'm responding to isn't an academic environment that is uncomfortable discussing issues of aesthetic merit so much as a national culture in which art and literature are peripheral, if not vestigial.

So, I agree with the demands for "access" and "inclusion", as long as the criterion for inclusion is still merit. And I disagree with writers like Saul Bellow who believe that it has been the sole criterion hitherto. However, I also disagree with the argument that, since the canon has been political, it should be our political battleground. Art and literature are where we escape the struggles of the day, not their battleground.

Also, I find Lauter a bit annoying in that he assumes that his education in the 'classics' was somehow universal. He asks if there "is anyone who will credibly argue that we need yet more books on America's certified 'classics'?" Um.... Well, okay. Why not? My problem is that the generation that I teach has no understanding whatsoever about the classics of any culture, including America. Shouldn't the point of multicultural education be to teach the classics of all cultures, and not to assume that, well, we've got enough books on Melville, thank you very much! Isn't there an unseemly subtext of contempt in Lauter's question?

What bothers me is how limited most academics are in their tastes, after forty years of trying to broaden their tastes! It's astounding to me how many grad students, and junior professors I meet who have never read Flaubert beyond Edward Said's attack on him. They've never read Hemingway because they read Kate Millet's attack on him. Many of them have never read Shakespeare deeply. And I find the same thing is true across the board. The erudite scholars I encounter seem like oddballs! Enthusiasts seem insane!

But, who's fault is that? It isn't as if university economics doesn't play a role in this. Again, we had to fight to keep any World Civ requirement at Mall University against those number-crunchers who would like us to become vocational training. Apparently, while some people were pushing for a more complete course of study, others were pushing to keep students' contact with culture as minimal as possible. The end result was a little dab of this and a little dollop of that, and away you go!

I think Lauter cares greatly for aesthetics and wants acknowledgement of the merits of excluded classics. However, he never mentions aesthetics beyond this, and he all-too-often assumes that someone else will teach the long-established classics. Let's push the new model and leave the old model in the warehouse. Most university old-timers that I meet have weirdly grandiose assumptions about primary education, which they assume teaches the classics thouroughly and by a 'triumphalist model' that might have applied in the 1950s, but which often amounts to little more than busy work in contemporary reality. Lauter says that the goal of his organization was "so that the work of Frederick Douglass, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Zora Neale Hurston is read with the work of Herman Melville, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway."

This is a noble goal. Actually, it's a fantastic goal. But, I disagree with the assumption that someone else will teach the students Melville, James, and Hemingway. When was the last time you saw a course at a university on Hemingway?! The problem is that people had this goal twenty years ago, and in 2007, students don't read any of the above. The end result of the Culture Wars was a bunch of old farts arguing about the classics who were actually the last generation to have fully read the classics.

My ideal is embodied in Allan Ginsberg (blessed be his name). Ginsberg was astounding in that he knew the Western canon inside and out, and also knew the Eastern canon inside and out. His was a cosmic consciousness, not the sort of spiritual bureaucracy that has reigned in universities. Sometimes, I get the feeling that we've been cheated. There is another sky, but I think we need to leave the culture wars, leave the universities, and return to culture.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm the guy who gave you shit about Protestant monks a few months back. I've been reading your posts ever since and have enjoyed them a great deal. Keep up the good work -- always something informative and thought-provoking.

Rufus said...

Thank you very much. Actually, I'll try to respond better to criticism in the future. I get pretty grouchy in the winter.

gregvw said...

That's because you're supposed to be hibernating.