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Eva Brann - Liberal Education and Multiculturalism

Eva Brann - Liberal Education and Multiculturalism

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EVAT.H.BRANN221
Liberal Education And i\/lulticuituraiism
FRIENDS OR ENEMIES?
By EVA T. H. BRANN,
Dean of St. John's College, Annapolis, MarylandDelivered at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 11, 1992
I
T IS NO use pretending that the question set for metonight, "Liberal Education and Multiculturalism:Friends or Enemies" can be treated dispassionately.There has grown up around the
topic
of multiculturalism anenormous collection of writing, mostly in magazines, jour-
nals,
and quickly-written
books.
Once the debate is history,
there will
no doubt
be
scholarly books on
it.
At this
date,
theonly treatment incorporating real scholarly research I haveseen, by Werner
SoUors,
a member of
the
Harvard Depart-ment of English and American Literature and Language,which I shall occasionally draw on, was published not herebut in the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free Universityof Berlin. Even as he
 fixes
he histories of
the
various termsof the debate he explains to his bemused European audi-ence
bemused because they cannot be expected to take
as
readily
as do we
Americans
to
the condemnation of thosehated, DWEMS, Dead White European Males, that havebecome one focus of attack in the fight
that the debate
may
be nearly played out. The philosopher Hegel said thatthe owl of Minerva, the bird of wisdom, flies at dusk. Hemeant broadly that issues begin to be investigated in per-spective only when their day is nearly over.How do issues pass
away?
One
way is
that they are talkedto death. Everyone, like myself tonight, eagerly joins thefray of
words,
and behold!, people have got enough. If theissue was always more one of perception than substance,surfeit is an effieient kind of termination for
it.
Another
way
is that the opposition begins to collect its forces and tomake itself felt, and that has certainly happened in themulticultural debate, especially in that aspect of it that isusually called political correctness or
P.
C. (an abbreviationthat took root, I imagine, because many people alreadyhave a love-hate relation to a very different kind of P. C,the one they keep at home and work in front of). The P. C.aspect of the Culture wars has a strange and wonderfultwist to it. In the awful days of Joe McCarthy's era, it wasthe intellectuals and academics
who
were hounded not only
by
the House Committee on Un-American Activities but by
a
popular feeling, the fear of Communism. This time it's theother way around: It is in the academic and intellectualworld that persecutions take place, and the public stands by
and
would like us all to behave more liberally
liberal herebeing used not as an "L-word," but as in Liberal Education.I will come in a moment to that meaning of "liberal."Yet another reason why the debate will probably diedown is
highly
worrisome and unsatisfaetory. That reason iscalled money. As the Age of Plenty has passed, the publicand its legislatures will begin to look closely but notalways carefully into the spending of their educationdollars, and multiculturalism will seem like an expensiveluxury, insofar as eaeh discernible "culture" a wordwhose meaning 1 must also take up in a moment
de-mands academie recognition, and that means departments
or
programs within departments, or, at the least, professorsspecially appointed.My sense is that this particular debate will be displacedwithout being resolved and that the underlying questionswill be with us for a long time. To me that means that thesooner
we
convert the noisy political passion for the contro-versy to a more sober intellectual passion the better. Thisconversion from engaged noise to objeetive eoneem is par-ticularly hard to make
and here I am, against my ownpreachings, driven into a partisan observation
since themulticulturalists tend to despise objectivity as just anotherpower play that can be unmasked to reveal its motives ofdomination and its consequences in victimization. I simplydo not agree. I think it is worth the effort to try to thinkclearly, with dispassionate passion, so to speak, to make thedistinction between one's material interest and personalattachments
on
the one hand, and the fair demands of otherpeople and new circumstances on the other. Some clarityabout the thoughts and the terms, the roots and the eonse-quences, of the debate would make the best beginning tothe protracted adjustments that will be going on in the nextcentury. So let me begin right here.It is generally agreed that the phenomenon referred to asthe "culture
wars"
is largely an aeademic preoccupation. Itis totally unclear how engaged the American minoritiesthemselves are in the concerns of their intellectual leader-
ship.
They jostle each other for
jobs
and politieal influence,as is the American way, but to what degree they
wish
theirchildren to be initiated into the American mainstream or tobe guided
into the ways
of separatism
no
one seems
so
far tohave honestly ascertained.Since the controversy takes place in the sehools, fromkindergarten to graduate school, it is most certainly aneducational phenomenon. That part of the educationalspectrum where liberal education is usually thought to haveits place is the college, be it an independent institution or apart of a university
the school in which that educationtakes plaee which follows the training of childhood andadolescence and that precedes training for the adult profes-sion. Liberal education is the education of
the
betwixt-and-between
years.
Therein lie
its
opportunities and
its
dangers.How is educating the young liberally distinguished frombringing up children, socializing adolescents, training for avocation, or acquiring the credentials for a profession?I speak of educating the
young
because liberal edueation,as
I will
describe it,
is
for the young, with the understandingthat there are two types of youth: chronological youth,from, say, seventeen to twenty-two, the normal eoUege
years,
and intelleetual youth, whieh has no age limit. WhenI
say
"the yotmg," I therefore mean, generally, all
those who
are free to be free, who have, at least for the moment, nocrushing worldly responsibilities and no rigidified mentalattitudes. The two most favorable times for liberal educa-tion are therefore before people enter on the life of makinga living, and after they retire from it
though of course,most people can snatch moments of free time throughouteven in that burdened middle stretch of life.
 
222
VITAL SPEECHES
OF THE DAY
The veiy earliest understanding
of
liberal education,which comes from Aristotle, emphasizes
the
liberty that
is
to be heard
in
the word "liberal." Liberal education presup-poses not only actual liberty from labor, actual leisure, but acertain kind
of
leisurely outlook,
a
sense that education
is
not to be undertaken immediately for a constraining profes-sion
or a
binding vocation,
but
that
it
gives
the
student
a
certain liberty.
It is the
liberty
to be
impractical, freely
to
learn things worth knowing mostly
for
their own sake, suchas poetry
and new
theory,
and
seriously
to
entertain opin-ions that
are
daring and probably insupportable
in the
longrun
for
example, nihilism
and
solipsism.
It is a
curiousand comforting fact that
a
good many parents have alwaysbeen willing
to
give their children
the
gift
of
four years
of
leisure with
no
goal except
to
learn those things that
are
worth knowing
for
their
own
sake.
And
they have trustedthe faculties
of
schools
of
higher education
to
know whatthese things were.Let me, as
a
member
of
thirty-five year's standing
of
sucha faculty,
to
whom
at
Convocation parents bring their chil-dren
to be
liberally educated, trusting
in
our judgement
to
teach them what
it
is good
to
know
let
me say plainly andboldly what
I
think
it is
good
to
know
and
what
1
havedoubts about.
I
shall begin with my doubts,
and
they comeunder three sets
of
opposites:Method
vs.
Matter,Problem vs. Paradigms,Parochialism vs. Universalism.
By
the heading Method
vs.
Matter I want
to
raise
a
doubtabout the growing curricular device of orienting students hymeans
of
"methods courses," courses
on
methods
of
think-ing, of criticism, about approaching a subject matter. Meth-ods are
like jigs
on machinetools;they guide thinking alongpre-set lines,
and
that is just what liberal education,
by its
very name, should avoid.
My
colleagues
and I
think thatstudents should study books
and
subjects,
and
approachthem freshly
and
immediately. Later, when they
are
ready,they can devise their own matter
or
choose someone else's.But
not at the
beginning.By
the
heading Problems
vs.
Paradigms
I
want
to
raise
a
doubt
on the
well-intentioned notion that students shouldearly
on, as a
part
of
their common experience,
be
intro-duced
to the
academic version
of the
societal problemscurrently identified
as
urgent. This
way of
beginning
an
education holds
the
danger
of
illiherality
for two
reasons.The first is that such courses cannot help but be politicized,in
the
sense that the professor's political passions and opin-ions cannot help but play
a
large role
in the
classroom.
The
second reason
is
deeper
and
less remediable.
It is
that,
in
my opinion
at
least,
the
best preparation
for
long range,wise,
and
effective action
is not a
premature engagementwith present problems, which
wears
out the indignation andoutrage
of
youth
in
academic gestures,
but the
quiet
and
cumulative study
of
books that give paradigms, that
is to
say,
models and exemplars,
of
the
good life. To
my
mind thebeginning of good actioh is
a
 firm
 view
of
how
things rightlyought tobe,acquired individually and communally, throughrespectful criticism
of the
finest texts available
not so
much through absorption
in how
things wrongly
are.
Finally,
by
the antithesis
of
Parochialism
vs.
Universalism1 mean
to
raise douhts about
the
current notion that
self-
respect comes from concentrating
on
one's
own -. he it
one's own culture
or
one's own prohlems.
I
agree that
self-
respect
is of the
essence,
and
that that half
of
our educa-tional troubles that doesn't come from lack
of
intellectualimagination comes from deficient self-respect.
I
also agreethat
the
mastery
of our
particular origins
is
necessary
to
self-respect; this mastery may make
us
either appropriateour own heritage
or
decide
to let it
lapse. We have a choicein this country
and can go
either
way. The
question
is
whether
the
place called
the
"university" ought
to be the
playing field
of
parochial concerns,
or if
indeed
it
ought
to
be that,
in
what
way.
To me
it
seems that before
and
abovethe nurturing
of
the diverse cultures
of
this country shouldcome the preservation, through critical study,
of
the
univer-sal, encompassing ground
on
which they must fiourish
or
fail.
One
objection
to
my claim must
of
course
be the
diffi-culty
of
telling what that universal ground
is.
Let me, once again, boldly try to tell what
is
universal andwhat
all
students should therefore learn
and
think about.Our common ground consists
of
two,
it
seems
to
me, unde-niable, elements: constitutional democracy
and
science-based technology.
It
seems
to me to
follow that every stu-dent should have
the
wherewithal
to
refiect
on
these
two
roots
of
contemporary life. That means that
all
studentsshould study, sometime early on in their fouryears,the
very
long
and
complex tradition, literary
and
philosophical, be-hind
the
democratic mode.
At the
same time they shouldalso know something
of the
elements
of
mathematics
and
science.Now,
you
might well
ask, are
these liberal
or
illiberalstudies?
Is
study
so
deliberately turned
to
understandingthe contemporary scene, even
if it
takes
a
long view
of
theantecedents
of our
present condition
is
such study
not
just
as
narrowly focused
on
living
in the
present
as the
problem courses about which
I
have
just expressed douhts?No,
I
think
not. The
point
is
that when
the
governingaspects
of
current life
are
approached from
a
long and highperspective rather than within
the
terms
of a
current
but
possibly already passing debate,
the
political questions gaina human universality which makes them intellectually com-pelling
on
their own, quite aside from their current pres-sure,just as the scientific bases
of
technology are intellectu-ally captivating quite aside from their tremendouspresent-day consequences.
It
seems
to he a
truth that
cer-
tain pressing questions gain
in
independent interest
as
theyarc taken
to a
higher level.
Let me
give
you a
very liveexample
of
what
I
mean:
One of the
writers
we
must
cer-
tainly study
to
begin
to
think about
our own
politics
is
Aristotle. Aristotle presents
a
notorious theory
of
slavery:that some human heings are slaves
by
nature, that
they,
likechildren
are
simply deficient
in the
capacity
for
self-deter-mination. Since Aristotle's argument implies
a
condemna-tion
of
slavery by capture
or
race,
it
leaves
us
free
to
thinkabout
the
basic requirements made
of
human nature
if
it
is
to
be
true that,
as
Rousseau will argue,
"All men are
bomfree,"
or as
Jefferson will announce,
"All men are
createdequal." Arguments carried
on
this level
are not
only morethoughtful, they
are
also simply more intellectually engag-ing, more worth thinking about
for
their mere interest, thanideologically determined debates.Where does multiculturalism
fit
into liberal education?Is
it
friend
or
foe?Of course,
I
have
to
begin
by
saying what multicultur-alism seems
to be. Let me
remind
you
that,
to put
muchhistory
in a
capsule form, there
has
been
a
progression
of
 
EVA T. H. BRANN
223
terms
three terms that I know of:Melting Pot,Pluralism,Multiculturalism.The "Melting Pot," became known to
many
of
us
throughthe hook,
Beyond the Melting
Pot,
published in 1963, byNathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moyihan, who showedthat the old assimilationist dream
or nightmare, depend-ing on one's point of view
never really prevailed in theurban ethnic population. The melting pot theory was thatall immigrants would melt into the prevailing Anglosaxonmainstream. Whatever its tyrannies and impositions, itsproponents saw to it that we learned English
but fast. Isay "we," because I was an immigrant under its dispensa-tion
one who learned English fast.There succeeded a kinder, gentler notion, that of Plural-
ism.
The pluralists appreciated and encouraged the diversi-
ty
of American cultures on a common American ground. Byand large, the way it worked is that we were Americansduring the week in school or at work, and on the weekendswe became hyphenated Americans: went to our shuls orGreek orthodox basilicas, learned Hebrew or Norwegian,ate hratwurst or keftedes. This was to me, I might as welltell you forthrightly, the golden mean and the golden mo-ment.Now we have Multiculturalism. In its most radical theo-rizing it differs from Pluralism in acknowledging no com-mon American ground and allowing no weekend ethnicity.Some multiculturalists are radical separatists, as you know.Their separatism is hindered by the fact that the membersof the groups in question are scattered all over the conti-nent. If that were not the case there would undoubtedly bea real movement for territorial secession. It is an enormousblessing that the various groups are, inner cities apart, sointermingled, because this country's bloodiest war wasfought to establish the principle that political secession isintolerable. Instead they practice internal secession. Be-
sides
heing separatists, they are cultural totalitarians, in thesense that they claim that the particular culture does andshould pervade existence totally, including schooling andsocial life. I shall set aside the most extreme form of multi-culturalism as being simply incompatible with liberal edu-cation as I have described it: This ideology would have no
room
for the ardent but objective involvement with intellec-tual matter, for the careful and critical study of the bestmodels, and for the receptive universalism of liberal stud-
ies.
Liberal education and radical multiculturalism are sim-ply enemies. The reasons can be given in far more detailthan this occasion allows, but a more detailed expositionwould not change the judgment, I believe.Happily multiculturalism covers a wide spectrum ofagendas, and with some of them liberal educations can verywell eome to terms.Perhaps it
is
time to
say
something more about the mean-ing of the word multiculturalism. The word incorporates aterm whieh denotes what is prohably the most difficult,swampy, theory-laden ideology-driven concepts of anthro-pology. A scholar, Raymond Williams, in his book
Keywords,
says that it is "one of the two or three mostcomplicated words in the English language." It is a wordthat
anyone wishing
to say something definite might wish toavoid. I would say that it has its most powerful applicationprecisely
in
contexts where
the
point
is
to divert responsibil-ity from a concrete and definable agent. It is often verymuch a part of the thinking of those who refer to culture,that human deeds are not only partially but totally culture-conditioned
that the crimes of oppression as well as theanti-social reactions of
victims
are largely unconscious anddeterministic behavior indueed by society and culture.In older times "culture" in the anthropological sense re-ferred to tribal or ethnic ways. Now there are corporatecultures, victim cultures, cultures of gender, raee, poverty,disability. It follows that when human conduct
is
referred toas culture, there is a great complex of cultures
which
can bemade responsible, so that people are caught, as itwere,in avise of cultures that are thought to
 fix
heir behavior. At thesame time they are, somewhat inconsistently, bidden orforced to acknowledge these cultures
as in the recentstratagem of "outing," in which homosexuals are exposedagainst their
will
by fellow homosexuals
so
that they
may
thesooner join the gay culture, or in the pressure put on youngblack students
by
their peers to make race a major aspect
of
their intellectual life so as not to divorce themselves fromtheir cultural roots by too much commitment to a traditionthat treacherously presents itself as universal.The point that I am making is that the "culturalism" ofmulticulturalism is at once a perception and a program: theperception of the overwhelming importance of "culture" inhuman existence and the program of compelling people toacknowledge that fact.
Is
culturalism friend or enemy to liberal education? Well,as a perception it plays a major role among the kinds ofquestion to be addressed in those free four years, and for aslong after as the mind remains liberal. The question wheth-er
we
are the masters or the subjeets of our culture, and theprior question, how we might delineate the factors thatshape us, and whieh go deepest and which are shallow intheir effect, that concatenation of questions is an unavoid-able preoccupation of liberal education. But the program
of
compulsion is inimical to liberal learning, which is by itsnature incompatible with propaganda. For such education,as
1
have depicted it, is more concerned with asking howthings truly are than with trying to bring about predeter-mined states of mind.
Now
here
is
the difficulty: To think about such matters asthe dependenee on our independenee of human beings ontheir society or culture, we must be ourselves well-rooted ina society. To reflect on culture, we must ourselves be culti-vated, be shaped
by
a eivilization. It used to be thought thata considerable part of a liberal education eonsisted in ac-quiring the taste and the morals, the sensihilities and thevirtues of one's culture. Ancient eulture in this non-anthro-pological sense invariably meant high culture. In fact, theways of the uneducated
were
thought of preeisely as uncul-tured.That
was
when one culture
was
acknowledged as prevail-ing. But this consensus is failing. Note incidentally that Isaid
"acknowledged
as
prevailing,"
for
it is by no means
clearto me that one eulture does not in fact prevail: Don't
we
alleither use English or wish we could? (1 am thinking of thedesires of real-life immigrants). Don't we all want to readbooks or
wish we
wanted to? Don't
we
all see television anduse telephones? Don't
we
all speak of our rights, and makeuse of our freedoms? And doesn't one and the same tradirtions stand behind all these achievements of modern times?But that is an argument whieh, important though it
is
to the

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