Critical Race Theory’s assault on the history of Western Civilization
WASHINGTON: The teaching of the history of Western Civilization is now under attack in many of our schools and universities because the advocates of Critical Race Theory tell us, it is “imbued with whiteness.” In their view, race consciousness should dominate every aspect of learning. Objective truth, they seem to believe, must be set aside.
This, sadly, is not new. For many years we have been hearing that the teaching of Homer, St. Thomas, Shakespeare, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein is the perpetuation of the power of “dead white males” over women and minorities
One opponent of teaching Western Civilization, Professor Renato Rosaldo of Stanford University, made this argument in 1993: “Try beginning to teach a diverse classroom with: ‘We must first learn our heritage. It extends from Plato and Aristotle to Milton and Shakespeare.’ The students ask, ‘Who’s we?’ At Stanford, over 40 percent of the entering undergraduates are Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Chicanos. Who, they wonder, is included in the phrase ‘our heritage?’ Are they included? Must they continue to look into the curricular mirror and see nothing?”
This issue is now being debated at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of our leading black institutions, which has announced that it is dissolving its classics department. One of the nation’s most prominent black academicians, Professor Cornel West of Harvard, co-wrote an article in the Washington Post stating that by removing the department, the university is “diminishing the light of wisdom and truth” that inspired freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Professor West notes that,
“Upon learning to read while enslaved, Frederick Douglass began his great journey of emancipation, as such journeys always begin, in the mind. Defying unjust laws, he read in secret, empowered by the wisdom of contemporaries and classics alike to think as a free man. Douglass risked mockery, abuse, beating, and even death to study the likes of Socrates, Cato, and Cicero. Long after Douglass’s encounters with these ancient thinkers, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be similarly galvanized by his reading in the classics as a young seminarian—-he mentions Socrates three times in his 1963 ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.’”
The campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is, in Dr. West’s view,
“…a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation. Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them. Engaging with the classics and with our civilizational heritage is the means to finding our true voice. It is how we become our full selves, spiritually free and morally great.”
The study of Western civilization is important for men and women of every race and background.
In his Wriston lecture on “Universal Civilization,” V.S. Naipaul, the son of immigrant Indian laborers who grew up in post-colonial Trinidad and was educated in England, contrasts some of the static, inward-looking insular, backsliding “non-Western” cultures with that spreading “universal civilization” that he finds to be based, above all, on Jefferson’s idea of the pursuit of happiness.
Discussing the essence of Western civilization—-which sets it apart from others—-Naipaul characterizes it in these terms:
“The ideal of the individual responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectability and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system nor generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems blow away.”
It is a contemporary illusion that particular works of art, literature, or music are, somehow, the possession of only those who can trace their lineage to the creators of such culture. Shall only Jews read the Hebrew Bible? Only Greeks read Plato and Aristotle? Only those of English descent read Shakespeare, and only Italians appreciate Dante or Leonardo da Vinci?
Western culture is relevant to people of all races and backgrounds, particularly to those living in the midst of our Western society. The distinguished black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois recognized this reality when he wrote more than a hundred years ago,
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”
In his address to the freshman class at Yale some years ago, Donald Kagan, then professor of History and Classics and Dean of Yale College, declared:
“The assault on the character of Western civilization badly distorts history. The West’s flaws are real enough, but they are common to almost all the civilizations known on any continent at any time in human history. What is remarkable about the Western heritage, and what makes it essential, are the important ways in which it has departed from the common experience. More than any other it has asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting the state’s power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate…Western civilization is the champion of representative democracy as the normal way for human beings to govern themselves, in place of the different varieties of monarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny that have ruled most of the human race throughout history…It has produced the theory and practice of separation of church and state…thereby creating a free and safe place for individual conscience. At its core is a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures…Only in the West can one imagine a movement to neglect the culture’s own heritage in favor of some other.”
The West has its sins, Kagan acknowledged, but argues that
“Most of its sins and errors…are those of the human race. Its special achievements and values, however, are gifts to all humanity and are widely seen as such around the world today, although their authorship is rarely acknowledged…Western culture and institutions are the most powerful paradigm in the world today.”
Our unity as a nation is threatened, in the view of Dr. Kagan, by those who would replace the teaching of our history and culture with something else. He points out that,
“American culture derives chiefly from the experience of Western civilization, and especially from England, whose language and institutions are the most copious springs from which it draws its life. I say this without embarrassment, as an immigrant who arrived here as an infant from Lithuania…Our students will be handicapped in their lives…if they do not have a broad and deep knowledge of the culture in which they live and the roots from which they have come…As our land becomes ever more diverse, the danger of separation and segregation by ethnic group…increases and with it the danger to the national unity which, ironically, is essential to the qualities that attracted its many people’s to this country.”
The goal of the civil rights movement was the creation of a genuinely color-blind society, one in which men and women would be judged on “the content of their character” and not “the color of their skin,” as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed.
This vision, of course, has always had its enemies. Usually, they have been found in circles that attract white racists.
Now, advocates of Critical Race Theory are attacking not only the goal of a genuinely color-blind society but the transmission of our history and culture through our schools. Politics, it has been said, makes strange bedfellows. But just as white racists do not represent the thinking of the overwhelming majority of white Americans, so the advocates of Critical Race Theory do not represent the thinking of most black Americans. Most Americans of all races embrace Dr. King’s vision of a color-blind American society.
The notion that Western civilization is less relevant to a student because of his or her racial or ethnic background is a product of the strange ethnocentrism which is now increasingly vocal. The great works of art, music, literature, science and philosophy are the common patrimony of all.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.