When I entered college in the mid-1990s, it had been almost ten years since Professor Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom argued that modern universities were failing their students in part because postmodern trends in the humanities had devalued the Western literary canon. Moreover, film critic David Denby had just published a book called ‘Great Books’ recounting the year he spent at Columbia University taking two core courses in the humanities. These courses focused on the great works of Western civilization. Denby wrote about coming away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for their timeless insights into the human condition, and in so doing offered a kind of defense of the Western literary canon as worthy of study.
These books were published at a time when a hot button topic in the culture wars was multiculturalism, a term that can mean many things. For example, it can refer to a benign and productive effort to include a multiplicity of cultural perspectives in the canon of great literary and philosophical works. But it can also refer to a more controversial politics of identity, which tends to promote intellectual relativism whereby truth is seen as inseparable from power. A colorful way of putting it when I was in college was to say that the canon was obsolete or compromised because it consisted primarily of works written by ‘dead white males.’ A fundamental presumption in calling these works into question was that they were not disquisitions or aesthetic commentaries on matters related to truth, but rather works written by European men which were relevant only, or primarily, in connection to a regime of power that exerted cultural and political hegemony over large parts of the world. These critiques of the Western literary canon were of the mind that truth, or the educational pursuit of truth, is always political, and that ‘dead white males’ had had their time in the sun.
These days, I do not spend my days in the halls of academia, and it has been a few years since I graduated from college. But I do have interactions with people who work in education, and I am not blind or deaf to news about some of the trends coming out of academia. So I am mindful of a sentiment that still appears to be prevalent within academia, especially in the humanities: that education is necessarily political. That is, it is customary to argue that no education can escape the influence of institutional power, and those who hold it, within the society in which the pursuit of education unfolds.
I disagree vehemently with this statement, and wish to explain why.
I did not major in the philosophy of education, and did not earn a master’s degree or doctorate in education. My formal background and training is in economics and finance. I also had a concentration in philosophy as an undergraduate and became enamored of philosophers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other socially-conscious philosophers interested in critiques of power. I have a decades-long interest in literature, history, poetry, and the humanities writ large. I spend a good deal of time thinking about the human condition. It is within this context that I have developed some views about the current state of education in the academy.
One of the central concerns I have is that contemporary academia, particularly in the humanities, seems infected with an ethos heavily influenced by the legacy of Marxism, postmodernism, and a general ideological predilection toward the presumption that the production of knowledge necessarily overlaps with the system of power relations in the society in which knowledge is ‘produced.’ Even the words I am using already makes me squeamish, as if knowledge is ‘produced’ rather than discovered (though as an economist I’m ultimately reconciled to the notion that knowledge can a material ‘thing’ embodied in the results of scholarly inquiry, and in that sense, is ‘produced’ just like cars, TVs, and homes).
While I acknowledge and agree that one is always a creature of his environment to a certain extent, I am more optimistic about the innate critical capacities of human intellect and the possibility of objective, dispassionate rational inquiry driven by a universalist perspective divorced from cultural, political, or historical-contextual presumptions about ‘how the world works.’ Curiosity is in the nature of what it is to be human, if only as an evolutionary imperative (yes, I am a disciple of Charles Darwin, the ‘dead white male’ who founded modern biology with his theory of evolution by natural selection). Eventually, human beings crossed the threshold from nature to civilization, allowing for the emergence of institutions within which curiosity could be structured and disciplined into a formal academic endeavor. Such institutions would inevitably be influenced by the factionalized conflicts of culture and politics, and how the human mind cultivates and explores the trajectories of curiosity is, I am sure, a fertile ground for inquiry in such areas as epistemology, philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of education. But in spite of all that, here we are, some thousands of years after the emergence of the first human civilizations, and we have physics, law, biology, history, math, and all the discoveries associated with art and science. In short, we are witness to the advance of knowledge.
The nuances of how knowledge has come to us, in terms of how and why one person discovered this, another person discovered that, and how and why these discoveries are interwoven with some specific set of cultural and historical circumstances, constitute a whole set of conversations and semesters of academic study and years of dissertation research in itself. All of that is worthy of attention, examination, and critique. I support any honest inquiry into the epistemological foundations of knowledge, the cultural foundations of knowledge, the historical foundations of knowledge, the political foundations of knowledge, the metaphysical foundations of knowledge, the economic foundations, and so on. Some of this may be of great interest to one perspective or another, and in many cases it may very well be the case that the full story of how something as small as a factotum or something as large as a branch of study cannot be understood without due attention to the institutional context in which it has emerged.
Yet, as the elementary example goes, 2+2=4.
Or, to use a less rudimentary example, consider the works of William Shakespeare, one of the most famous ‘dead white males.’ I am overwhelmed with marvel when I read his works. I consider human civilization greatly enriched by the reading and teaching of his plays. Hamlet alone makes Shakespeare one of the greats of the literary canon. I side with famed critic Harold Bloom in lamenting how contemporary impulses in academia are drawn to superficial investigations of patriarchy, sexism, or racism in works that ultimately transcend all these categories. Even so, maybe it’s interesting to consider Iago as a racist rather than as a much deeper Shakespearean rendition of John Milton’s Beelzebub. Some may want to spend time thinking about that as a central theme in Othello, though I would argue that ‘Iago is a racist’ is a highly anachronistic and superficial reading of the play. It seems to me that such an inquiry would, however, be quite permissible, even encouraged, given the current state of humanities education in academia.
But my purpose here is not the nuances of how any particular claim of knowledge or insight has come to us. Rather, my argument is that, regardless of how it comes to us, knowledge is still knowledge, and insight is still insight. It would not be unwarranted to construe my claim as sounding like, as one English professor wrote to me, I still live in eighteenth-century print culture in Europe. Indeed, I plead guilty to the allegation that I am fond of the Age of Reason. Yet while the age of Enlightenment arose in the West, and I would not be averse to studying the institutional and cultural circumstances of how and why it arose in the West, I would insist that rational inquiry is not a norm exclusive to the West. Further, while it is perhaps interesting to consider the relationship between the culture of Enlightenment and subsequent developments in Western civilization such as imperialism (which seems to motivate the relativist presumption that education is political), it is my view that nothing about that subsequent development discredits the essential integrity of what is entailed in the concept and historical emergence of Enlightenment.
Perhaps I am mistaking the implicit claims of many academics, but I do not believe ‘enlightenment’ was developed consciously or even unconsciously as an ideological foundation of Western hegemony or power, not only considering the opposition of authorities incurred by the likes of Copernicus, Machiavelli, or any number of other ‘dead white males,’ but because I find such sweeping broad claims about the organization and coherence of power in any society to be uninteresting precisely because it is unrealistic, unless we are talking about totalitarian societies (but even then dissent and discontent will always be a timeless human instinct, and the Winstons of 1984 will always arise in some fashion or other). Newtonian physics is simply the result of a guy (another ‘dead white male’) who was interested in exploring the phenomena of motion and happened upon some crucial insights as a result of his curiosity (I understand it was probably more complicated than that, but essentially, is it?). The story of intellectual ‘progress’ is of this tinkering nature. While it is the task of historiography to understand how and why things happened when they did, it is the task of history itself to actually move forward into the future in real time. That forward march is invariably a delicate and unpredictable walk along a razor’s edge.
The forward march of history is not, of course, restricted to ‘dead white males’ in the West.
For example, as an undergraduate, I spent a year studying Chinese history. I was fascinated by its culture of Confucianism, though much less so by the legacy of Mao and the current ruling state. The Chinese suffered a great deal as a result of Western and Japanese imperialism (but also because of Mao), and yet here we are in the 21st century and China is poised to become the largest economy in the world. It has a nuclear capability. It is expanding its military capability. It is politically repressive, but economically impressive (though experiencing some hiccups lately as it moves to a consumer and services-centered economy). Why? This is a question for the experts who make careers out of asking such questions, but I think it is fair to say that it is not because of the half-century of anti-imperialist ideological ramblings of Mao, but rather the steady technocratic hand of Deng Xiaopeng and his successors as they engineered the transition to so-called ‘market socialism’ whereby economic competence rather than ideological consciousness has been the central underpinning of China’s rise to prominence.
This is not to imply that once a Western system of economic utilitarianism prevails, all is well. China is not a Western society. It still reflects its Confucian heritage, not Western cultural values. Nevertheless, it is true that economic competence reflects, at least to some substantive degree, an Enlightenment priority on rationality and order. But this does not then compromise the cultural integrity of China’s ‘market socialism’ or the cultural achievements of Western ‘enlightenment’ (such as the economic achievements of market capitalism; and by the way I have problems with the concept of capitalism, but that’s another article). It is to say only that rationality and order are key factors to socioeconomic progress, and are by no means exclusive to the Enlightenment or the West.
A great irony in the debate about the value of the Western canon is that a critique of institutional power naturally emanates from an Enlightenment focus on rationality (and autonomy). An ongoing effort to be more inclusive in the study of great works is perfectly in keeping with the tradition of Enlightenment culture, which is concerned with truth rather than power. To the extent it has been concerned with power, it has focused as much on the critique of power rather than its preservation (and perhaps even more on the critique of power).
As a disciple of the Enlightenment, I am also skeptical of elites—in the academy, in the media, and in the government. In the academy, because the Ivory Tower is by its nature a sheltered environment that militates against omniscience. In the media, because the media is a powerful institution that shapes the narratives of the news from which we gain much of our understanding of what is going on in the world. In the government, because to hold a healthy skepticism of those who are elected to positions of power is, in my view, a crucial strength of a free society girded by ‘enlightened’ inquiry. But all that said, I am not conspiratorial in my thinking. I view power as ultimately too dispersed to be monolithic. There are many who believe our ‘government’ believes the Western perspective is the only one not open to being critiqued for its provincialism; but the government is a collection of various bureaucratic interests that themselves disagree about policy and objectives; to claim implicitly that the government is a monolithic entity capable of suppressing dissent or imposing consent so broadly and systematically seems to require a severe lack of peripheral vision (again, unless we are talking about totalitarian societies, but even then, not really).
With respect to academia, and for purposes of this article, my ultimate concern in the area of pedagogy, epistemology, and the acquisition of knowledge is that academia, at least in the humanities, has been hijacked by structuralist, postmodern, Marxist frameworks that find power relations in everything we do and say (I recognize I am myself making a rather broad and sweeping claim here, and that academia is too wide and deep in scope and scale to be so caricatured; but I don’t think I’m wrong that, just as ‘liberals’ are quite prevalent among journalists, cultural Marxists, or latent cultural Marxists, are prevalent among academics in the humanities). This is unfortunate in part because one should not be reluctant to acknowledge the contributions to truth made by people from all cultures and histories. But in arguing that education is political, postmodern thinkers and their cousins in the culture wars end up devaluing the important contributions of the canon, ironically distracting from the effort to include a wider set of thinkers, authors, inventors, and others.
Postmodernists are presumably motivated in part by a concern for social justice, in particular the fight against cultural hegemony and exploitation.
This is a worthy motive, and I always rush to point out that I am sympathetic to studies of exploitation. I agree, for example, that mill work in the nineteenth century was highly exploitative. Moreover, I often find myself skeptical of the ‘rational economic man’ notion that underpins much of classical economic theory and so-called bourgeois culture. However, I must simply acknowledge, as John Adams said, that facts are stubborn things. He might have said the same thing about logic. The law of demand, for example, simply is (which is not to exclude such things as snob appeal). While I think it is useful and important that academics would subject ‘rational economic man’ to intense scrutiny, I think it is destructive to then call into question the technological achievements of capitalism simply because certain claims of knowledge were discovered, or ‘produced,’ in an historical era defined by, to grant the Marxist terminology, a division between the owners of the means of production and the proletariat.
It is useful at this point to distinguish between the study of economics and the study of capitalism, because the view that education cannot be separated from political contexts derives at least some of its intellectual origin from the teachings of Marx, and Marx was no friend of capitalism. But as an economist by training, I’m not terribly concerned anymore with the study of capitalism. I’ve read Marx, and I did not find that he gave me much useful insight into how the world works, though he did succeed for a while in making me a bitter employee in the ‘real world.’ I haven’t totally divorced myself from his teachings, but almost. The only place where they seem relevant is academia, where academics can’t seem to break free of a reductionist postmodern paradigm whereby knowledge is invariably embedded in, and inescapable from, exploitative systems of power and privilege. I would simply wave this off as not relevant to my life, and also not relevant to understanding a more complicated ‘real world,’ except that this penchant for quasi-relativism now seems to dominate modern educational paradigms in the humanities.
In spite of my dismay about this omnipresence, I am not asserting the claim that power structures are, as the English professor wrote to me, ‘not deeply relevant to the knowledge that gets produced in the contexts of them.’ But I profoundly disagree with the implicit converse presumption that power structures are, if not always, then almost always, deeply relevant. Sometimes, in fact I would say many or most times, thinkers are simply interested in the pursuit of knowledge. That’s not to deny that the pursuit of knowledge unfolds within a cultural and historical set of circumstances, just as it does now in an academic culture obsessed with exploitation and power structures. But just because Newtonian physics emerged in the era of Enlightenment does not mean that the insights of Newtonian physics are inherently compromised.
Gravity is gravity no matter who explains it or when.
To take an example explicitly from the humanities, James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the greatest works I’ve ever read. It is a miracle of word play and command of vocabulary. I probably don’t understand even half of what I read, and yet I loved reading it. But a professor of poetry and fiction writes to me that this ‘is exactly why he is currently out of fashion with the critics. When criticism switched from aesthetics to anthropology, his value was no longer available to the zeitgeist of this age which is all about a sort of sushi leftism. He’s considered a dead, hetero normative white boy, and Proust is given pride of place. I think there’s room for both, but what do I know? I still love word play and beautiful sentences.’
Seeing as how there is much allusion in Joyce’s work to Irish history, with all its distrust of the British Empire, I would think Joyce would fit right in (maybe he does, but only to the extent that his work is almost ‘postcolonial’?), but indeed, what do I know? Yet if the current state of academia cannot find a place for Joyce except as a ‘hetero-normative white boy’ then, really, one must be very concerned about the current state of academia when it comes to the study of literature. Literature should not be a political or ideological organ. The human condition and its complexities ultimately transcend the provincial limitations of politics and ideology.
In closing, let me use the example of grammar.
There is something called ‘correct grammar’ and I am entirely grateful that I learned it (though perhaps I have not mastered it). For instance, I’m glad I perk up when I hear double negatives. Why? Am I just being a pretentious a-hole who cannot resist pointing out that, as a matter of logic, ‘I don’t know nothing’ actually implies ‘I know something’? Not exactly. For one, I simply enjoy the exercise in logic involved in pointing out to myself that a double negative amounts to an affirmative. I also appreciate grammar for the insights it gives me about thought process, meaning, and the flow of prose and verse. That said, however, I love Bob Dylan’s music and there are certainly a few double negatives to be found in his music; the lyrical flow in his music is that much more rhythmic or musical as a result. It’s a part of word play. Moreover, I love the play of language in dialect, slang, and different kinds of speech. I also recognize the dichotomy between ‘correct grammar’ and ‘slang’ and the implicit perception that slang is a deviation and therefore somehow an aberration; that’s an interesting topic in itself, and I am not as averse to critiques of ‘correct grammar’, whatever they may be, as one might think. I’m even willing to engage the debate of what is meant when we say that grammar is ‘correct’ or simply ‘standardized.’ But ultimately, I am glad I learned ‘correct’ grammar, not because I feel more ‘educated’ or empowered (though I am) but because it is an advance in my logical abilities to recognize that a double negative is an affirmative. I certainly have no aversion to the possibility that there are all sorts of institutional relationships of power and privilege embedded in the daily play of grammar in communication. Nor do I have an aversion to the insights to be found in the bending of grammar and ‘correct speech’ through dialogue, dialect, and slang. But none of this negates the essential fact that, as a matter of logic, ‘I don’t know nothing’ means ‘I know something.’ To understand why is an advancement in knowledge, regardless of who is in power.
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