Friday, May 30, 2008

Conclusions (Tentatively)

(Note: This is part 5 of 5.)

As with any essay, most of this I was discovering as I went along: “essaying” in the sense of “trying out”. But, here are some tentative conclusions, which everyone is free to critique, of course:

1. The Culture Wars of the early 90s are over. The campus left has bigger problems to worry about now such as war and global economics, political correctness is fairly unpopular, and the traditional Western Civilizations program is now so watered down that it is effectively dead as a doornail. As for conservatives, they have no critique of the deleterious effects of capitalism on culture, and so can only defend western culture from a narrow sliver of the radical left that apparently has better things to worry about. This struggle is over: culture lost.

2. Nevertheless, there remains a real reluctance on the part of some academics to wholeheartedly engage with the western tradition for fear of appearing reactionary, conservative, triumphalist, nationalist, Eurocentric, or even xenophobic. Therefore, most students are introduced to the tradition through its critique: they learn to hate it before they know what it is. And so it remains dead.

3. So I think we need to re-engage with the tradition outside of all narrow political struggles, and indeed to treat it as if it is new. Our model for this can be the Renaissance, coming as it did after a period of similar strife and dogmatism.

4. And, in the same way that I have argued that Obama’s popular appeal is due to the fact that he makes it acceptable for liberals to be patriotic and civically engaged again, we need academics to explain their love of culture again- all culture- and make it live again, beyond outdated political categories. It is not “conservative” or “liberal” to make your life as a steward of culture- it is simply what the humanities entail. And it is needed now more than ever.


narrator said...

How, I might ask, would we know how western culture developed in offensive ways - if we find those ways offensive - if we do not watch and understand its development? I think I can comment because I have worked through what I can from the ancient Greek and Celtic legends on up. I'm not well read, but I keep trying, and I don't, for example, criticize those opposing the embrace of the current technology shift in education without being able to describe the sames battles as fought in 2600 BC, 1500 AD, 1840 AD, 1900 AD, etc.

I still doubt this is truly solvable on the US university level. I once was part of a team helping high school students put on the Oresteia. Something most European secondary school students would be at least somewhat familiar with. The teachers in the school deeply objected. This was "over their heads," and "too hard," not to mention (we're talking US Midwest here) "pagan." We persisted, the kids loved it and were fascinated and asked, yes, asked, to do other Greek dramas.

One ninth grader, who was failing English, talked about the differing world views in the plays we did that year: the Oresteia, Midsummers, and Our Town, and commented that he thought that, overall, the struggles being written about were "not that different." (though he deeply preferred the Greeks, and hated Our Town)

Amazing. The idea that history and literature and philosophy might teach you that time is not relentlessly linear and progress is not inevitable, and that we build on the knowledge base accumulated by thousands of human generations.

If you know those traditions, you can evaluate them and adapt them or adopt them. If you don't know them, you can do nothing but play follow the leader. But since American leaders want everyone playing follow the leader, they have no interest in those traditions being learned.

Rufus said...

I've found the same thing with Medea- the students loved it. Well, some of them did. It might be offensive to point this out, but it was largely the black students that loved it, while many of the white kids felt oppressed for being expected to read it. But I was amazed at one class in which the girls had this heated argument about Medea, as if she was someone they knew.

So, there is hope. But, yeah, we really have to work past the low expectations that a lot of teachers have.

The Pagan Temple said...

Everybody has known somebody like Medea at some point. She's an archetype. Some people relate to such characters on an intensely personal an emotional level.

I find it very interesting that black students were taken by it to a greater degree than whites. It's certainly not offensive to make note of that observation.

I might point out that many white students might be offended by the character on some level that challenges their perceptions and values pertaining to some feminist angle. Or something like that.