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« Further to the Daoist Trolley (non)Problem | Main | Elderly caring for elderly may be good, but it's not Confucian »

May 23, 2013


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I have thought about this often. The problem is far broader than Confucianism - consider, for example, the dearth of books on the military history of ancient China:

"Troubles With the Chinese Military Tradition"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 23 March 2013.

So where does the problem lie?

The League of Ordinary Gentleman recently published a series titled "G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, a Historical Perspective chronicling the various debates about moral relativism and multiculturalism that have swamped academia since the 1930s. I summarized the debate and my thoughts on it a comment I left there:

There seems to be two different objections to current GE system of most modern universities. Your last two posts outline both of them:

1) The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because post-modernism, gender studies, area studies, and multiculturalism generally have replaced them. This is bad. (the argument 1970s-2010s)

2) The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because social science and statistics has
conquered the humanities and specialization has made GE irrelevant to the average student’s education. This is bad. (The argument 1930s-1960s).

Of the two, I find the second both more convincing and alarming.

Adler and his kin often talked of the Western cultural tradition as a “great conversation.” Said he:

“What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” [1]

As Adler sees it, understanding Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Conrad requires a knowledge of what came before them. Their words, ideas, and works were inspired by the good that came before, written in response to the bad which they deplored, and full of allusions to both. It is hard to appreciate or engage with these authors in isolation.

The multiculturalist objection to all of this is easily resolved. How can we support a “great conversation” that excludes so many voices? The answer: what stops us from including them? This has been the course I have followed in my personal education, and have found it rewarding. I have learned just more from Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun than I ever did from Herodotus or Aristotle. The Great Conversation has excluded the view points of women and minorities? Then let us add Sei Shonagon and Kalidasa to it! This cross cultural approach has deepened my appreciation for and understanding of the Western canon. Moreover, in a world interconnected as ours is, almost any argument for attaining cultural literacy in the Western tradition can (and should) be applied to the Indic and East Asian traditions. Cultural literacy in the 21st century reaches far beyond Athens and Jerusalem. [2]

The second argument is the more worrisome. The eclipse of the Western tradition has just as much to do with specialization as it does multiculturalism, though some habits of the newer humanities – such as the general distaste for studying “great men” at all – have contributed. The general expansion of college education from an elite endeavor to career-prep for the masses is another part of the story. I think so many critics of the university ignore these things because multiculturalism is an easier target. Changing a reading list is easy; changing the structure of higher education is not.

The consequences are the same, either way. There is something to be said for education that has coherence; there is something to be said for seeking to learn from lives long gone. I fear that we are cutting ourselves off from the past. When we do not leave room for the “great conversations” in our studies, then it dies. Thousands of years of human endeavor and emotion are found in the Western tradition. And unlike our predecessors, we have the option of adding to this tradition, to expand it from Western to human. I find that exciting. Alas, the academy does not. “Tradition” is not a word worth much there.

[1] See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

[2] This is something most non-Westeners understand. At sundry times and places I have been friends or colleagues with Chinese men and women. I was very surprised at how historically grounded the Chinese are – Chinese popular culture, even at the level of the uneducated layman, is saturated with its history and literature. It took some getting used to (and it presents a very practical language learning problem!) Among educated Chinese, I have been very impressed with their desire to learn about and absorb Western history and culture. They value that of their own world, and seek that of the new, thus beating out Americans twice over, who do neither.

This is kind of the problem. Sam mentions that plenty of people use ancient Greek and Roman thought today - this is true, but current knowledge of those ancient lives pales in comparison to that held by the educated public 80 years ago.* The baby was thrown out with the bath-water. The response to multiculturalism was to jettison the tradition altogether; it should have been to add folks like Kongzi to it.

I suspect that if we want the Chinese tradition to have a part in American intellectual life, then we must bring back the idea of tradition as a whole.

*This is in many ways true for the Chinese classics as well. Many folks between Thoreau and TS Eliot took the effort to familiarize themselves with the Asian classics. Few do so today.

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