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Liberal Education And i\/lulticuituraiism

By EVA T. H. BRANN, Dean of St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland
Delivered at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 11, 1992

I T IS NO use pretending that the question set for me My sense is that this particular debate will be displaced
tonight, "Liberal Education and Multiculturalism: without being resolved and that the underlying questions
Friends or Enemies" can be treated dispassionately. will be with us for a long time. To me that means that the
There has grown up around the topic of multiculturalism an sooner we convert the noisy political passion for the contro-
enormous collection of writing, mostly in magazines, jour- versy to a more sober intellectual passion the better. This
nals, and quickly-written books. Once the debate is history, conversion from engaged noise to objeetive eoneem is par-
there will no doubt be scholarly books on it. At this date, the ticularly hard to make — and here I am, against my own
only treatment incorporating real scholarly research I have preachings, driven into a partisan observation — since the
seen, by Werner SoUors, a member of the Harvard Depart- multiculturalists tend to despise objectivity as just another
ment of English and American Literature and Language, power play that can be unmasked to reveal its motives of
which I shall occasionally draw on, was published not here domination and its consequences in victimization. I simply
but in the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University do not agree. I think it is worth the effort to try to think
of Berlin. Even as hefixesthe histories of the various terms clearly, with dispassionate passion, so to speak, to make the
of the debate he explains to his bemused European audi- distinction between one's material interest and personal
ence — bemused because they cannot be expected to take attachments on the one hand, and the fair demands of other
as readily as do we Americans to the condemnation of those people and new circumstances on the other. Some clarity
hated, DWEMS, Dead White European Males, that have about the thoughts and the terms, the roots and the eonse-
become one focus of attack in the fight — that the debate quences, of the debate would make the best beginning to
may be nearly played out. The philosopher Hegel said that the protracted adjustments that will be going on in the next
the owl of Minerva, the bird of wisdom, flies at dusk. He century. So let me begin right here.
meant broadly that issues begin to be investigated in per- It is generally agreed that the phenomenon referred to as
spective only when their day is nearly over. the "culture wars" is largely an aeademic preoccupation. It
How do issues pass away? One way is that they are talked is totally unclear how engaged the American minorities
to death. Everyone, like myself tonight, eagerly joins the themselves are in the concerns of their intellectual leader-
fray of words, and behold!, people have got enough. If the ship. They jostle each other for jobs and politieal influence,
issue was always more one of perception than substance, as is the American way, but to what degree they wish their
surfeit is an effieient kind of termination for it. Another way children to be initiated into the American mainstream or to
is that the opposition begins to collect its forces and to be guided into the ways of separatism no one seems so far to
make itself felt, and that has certainly happened in the have honestly ascertained.
multicultural debate, especially in that aspect of it that is Since the controversy takes place in the sehools, from
usually called political correctness or P. C. (an abbreviation kindergarten to graduate school, it is most certainly an
that took root, I imagine, because many people already educational phenomenon. That part of the educational
have a love-hate relation to a very different kind of P. C, spectrum where liberal education is usually thought to have
the one they keep at home and work in front of). The P. C. its place is the college, be it an independent institution or a
aspect of the Culture wars has a strange and wonderful part of a university — the school in which that education
twist to it. In the awful days of Joe McCarthy's era, it was takes plaee which follows the training of childhood and
the intellectuals and academics who were hounded not only adolescence and that precedes training for the adult profes-
by the House Committee on Un-American Activities but by sion. Liberal education is the education of the betwixt-and-
a popular feeling, the fear of Communism. This time it's the between years. Therein lie its opportunities and its dangers.
other way around: It is in the academic and intellectual How is educating the young liberally distinguished from
world that persecutions take place, and the public stands by bringing up children, socializing adolescents, training for a
and would like us all to behave more liberally — liberal here vocation, or acquiring the credentials for a profession?
being used not as an "L-word," but as in Liberal Education. I speak of educating the young because liberal edueation,
I will come in a moment to that meaning of "liberal." as I will describe it, is for the young, with the understanding
Yet another reason why the debate will probably die that there are two types of youth: chronological youth,
down is highly worrisome and unsatisfaetory. That reason is from, say, seventeen to twenty-two, the normal eoUege
called money. As the Age of Plenty has passed, the public years, and intelleetual youth, whieh has no age limit. When
and its legislatures will begin to look closely — but not I say "the yotmg," I therefore mean, generally, all those who
always carefully — into the spending of their education are free to be free, who have, at least for the moment, no
dollars, and multiculturalism will seem like an expensive crushing worldly responsibilities and no rigidified mental
luxury, insofar as eaeh discernible "culture" — a word attitudes. The two most favorable times for liberal educa-
whose meaning 1 must also take up in a moment — de- tion are therefore before people enter on the life of making
mands academie recognition, and that means departments a living, and after they retire from it — though of course,
or programs within departments, or, at the least, professors most people can snatch moments of free time throughout
specially appointed. even in that burdened middle stretch of life.

The veiy earliest understanding of liberal education, respect is of the essence, and that that half of our educa-
which comes from Aristotle, emphasizes the liberty that is tional troubles that doesn't come from lack of intellectual
to be heard in the word "liberal." Liberal education presup- imagination comes from deficient self-respect. I also agree
poses not only actual liberty from labor, actual leisure, but a that the mastery of our particular origins is necessary to
certain kind of leisurely outlook, a sense that education is self-respect; this mastery may make us either appropriate
not to be undertaken immediately for a constraining profes- our own heritage or decide to let it lapse. We have a choice
sion or a binding vocation, but that it gives the student a in this country and can go either way. The question is
certain liberty. It is the liberty to be impractical, freely to whether the place called the "university" ought to be the
learn things worth knowing mostly for their own sake, such playing field of parochial concerns, or if indeed it ought to
as poetry and new theory, and seriously to entertain opin- be that, in what way. To me it seems that before and above
ions that are daring and probably insupportable in the long the nurturing of the diverse cultures of this country should
run — for example, nihilism and solipsism. It is a curious come the preservation, through critical study, of the univer-
and comforting fact that a good many parents have always sal, encompassing ground on which they must fiourish or
been willing to give their children the gift of four years of fail. One objection to my claim must of course be the diffi-
leisure with no goal except to learn those things that are culty of telling what that universal ground is.
worth knowing for their own sake. And they have trusted Let me, once again, boldly try to tell what is universal and
the faculties of schools of higher education to know what what all students should therefore learn and think about.
these things were. Our common ground consists of two, it seems to me, unde-
Let me, as a member of thirty-five year's standing of such niable, elements: constitutional democracy and science-
a faculty, to whom at Convocation parents bring their chil- based technology. It seems to me to follow that every stu-
dren to be liberally educated, trusting in our judgement to dent should have the wherewithal to refiect on these two
teach them what it is good to know — let me say plainly and roots of contemporary life. That means that all students
boldly what I think it is good to know and what 1 have should study, sometime early on in their four years, the very
doubts about. I shall begin with my doubts, and they come long and complex tradition, literary and philosophical, be-
under three sets of opposites: hind the democratic mode. At the same time they should
Method vs. Matter, also know something of the elements of mathematics and
Problem vs. Paradigms, science.
Parochialism vs. Universalism. Now, you might well ask, are these liberal or illiberal
By the heading Method vs. Matter I want to raise a doubt studies? Is study so deliberately turned to understanding
about the growing curricular device of orienting students hy the contemporary scene, even if it takes a long view of the
means of "methods courses," courses on methods of think- antecedents of our present condition — is such study not
ing, of criticism, about approaching a subject matter. Meth- just as narrowly focused on living in the present as the
ods are like jigs on machine tools; they guide thinking along problem courses about which I have just expressed douhts?
pre-set lines, and that is just what liberal education, by its No, I think not. The point is that when the governing
very name, should avoid. My colleagues and I think that aspects of current life are approached from a long and high
students should study books and subjects, and approach perspective rather than within the terms of a current but
them freshly and immediately. Later, when they are ready, possibly already passing debate, the political questions gain
they can devise their own matter or choose someone else's. a human universality which makes them intellectually com-
But not at the beginning. pelling on their own, quite aside from their current pres-
By the heading Problems vs. Paradigms I want to raise a sure, just as the scientific bases of technology are intellectu-
doubt on the well-intentioned notion that students should ally captivating quite aside from their tremendous
early on, as a part of their common experience, be intro- present-day consequences. It seems to he a truth that cer-
duced to the academic version of the societal problems tain pressing questions gain in independent interest as they
currently identified as urgent. This way of beginning an arc taken to a higher level. Let me give you a very live
education holds the danger of illiherality for two reasons. example of what I mean: One of the writers we must cer-
The first is that such courses cannot help but be politicized, tainly study to begin to think about our own politics is
in the sense that the professor's political passions and opin- Aristotle. Aristotle presents a notorious theory of slavery:
ions cannot help but play a large role in the classroom. The that some human heings are slaves by nature, that they, like
second reason is deeper and less remediable. It is that, in children are simply deficient in the capacity for self-deter-
my opinion at least, the best preparation for long range, mination. Since Aristotle's argument implies a condemna-
wise, and effective action is not a premature engagement tion of slavery by capture or race, it leaves us free to think
with present problems, which wears out the indignation and about the basic requirements made of human nature if it is
outrage of youth in academic gestures, but the quiet and to be true that, as Rousseau will argue, "All men are bom
cumulative study of books that give paradigms, that is to free," or as Jefferson will announce, "All men are created
say, models and exemplars, of the good life. To my mind the equal." Arguments carried on this level are not only more
beginning of good actioh is afirmview of how things rightly thoughtful, they are also simply more intellectually engag-
ought to be, acquired individually and communally, through ing, more worth thinking about for their mere interest, than
respectful criticism of the finest texts available — not so ideologically determined debates.
much through absorption in how things wrongly are. Where does multiculturalism fit into liberal education?
Finally, by the antithesis of Parochialism vs. Universalism Is it friend or foe?
1 mean to raise douhts about the current notion that self- Of course, I have to begin by saying what multicultur-
respect comes from concentrating on one's own -. he it alism seems to be. Let me remind you that, to put much
one's own culture or one's own prohlems. I agree that self- history in a capsule form, there has been a progression of

terms — three terms that I know of: ity from a concrete and definable agent. It is often very
Melting Pot, much a part of the thinking of those who refer to culture,
Pluralism, that human deeds are not only partially but totally culture-
Multiculturalism. conditioned — that the crimes of oppression as well as the
The "Melting Pot," became known to many of us through anti-social reactions of victims are largely unconscious and
the hook, Beyond the Melting Pot, published in 1963, by deterministic behavior indueed by society and culture.
Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moyihan, who showed In older times "culture" in the anthropological sense re-
that the old assimilationist dream — or nightmare, depend- ferred to tribal or ethnic ways. Now there are corporate
ing on one's point of view — never really prevailed in the cultures, victim cultures, cultures of gender, raee, poverty,
urban ethnic population. The melting pot theory was that disability. It follows that when human conduct is referred to
all immigrants would melt into the prevailing Anglosaxon as culture, there is a great complex of cultures which can be
mainstream. Whatever its tyrannies and impositions, its made responsible, so that people are caught, as it were, in a
proponents saw to it that we learned English — but fast. I vise of cultures that are thought tofixtheir behavior. At the
say "we," because I was an immigrant under its dispensa- same time they are, somewhat inconsistently, bidden or
tion — one who learned English fast. forced to acknowledge these cultures — as in the recent
There succeeded a kinder, gentler notion, that of Plural- stratagem of "outing," in which homosexuals are exposed
ism. The pluralists appreciated and encouraged the diversi- against their will by fellow homosexuals so that they may the
ty of American cultures on a common American ground. By sooner join the gay culture, or in the pressure put on young
and large, the way it worked is that we were Americans black students by their peers to make race a major aspect of
during the week in school or at work, and on the weekends their intellectual life so as not to divorce themselves from
we became hyphenated Americans: went to our shuls or their cultural roots by too much commitment to a tradition
Greek orthodox basilicas, learned Hebrew or Norwegian, that treacherously presents itself as universal.
ate hratwurst or keftedes. This was to me, I might as well The point that I am making is that the "culturalism" of
tell you forthrightly, the golden mean and the golden mo- multiculturalism is at once a perception and a program: the
ment. perception of the overwhelming importance of "culture" in
Now we have Multiculturalism. In its most radical theo- human existence and the program of compelling people to
rizing it differs from Pluralism in acknowledging no com- acknowledge that fact.
mon American ground and allowing no weekend ethnicity. Is culturalism friend or enemy to liberal education? Well,
Some multiculturalists are radical separatists, as you know. as a perception it plays a major role among the kinds of
Their separatism is hindered by the fact that the members question to be addressed in those free four years, and for as
of the groups in question are scattered all over the conti- long after as the mind remains liberal. The question wheth-
nent. If that were not the case there would undoubtedly be er we are the masters or the subjeets of our culture, and the
a real movement for territorial secession. It is an enormous prior question, how we might delineate the factors that
blessing that the various groups are, inner cities apart, so shape us, and whieh go deepest and which are shallow in
intermingled, because this country's bloodiest war was their effect, that concatenation of questions is an unavoid-
fought to establish the principle that political secession is able preoccupation of liberal education. But the program of
intolerable. Instead they practice internal secession. Be- compulsion is inimical to liberal learning, which is by its
sides heing separatists, they are cultural totalitarians, in the nature incompatible with propaganda. For such education,
sense that they claim that the particular culture does and as 1 have depicted it, is more concerned with asking how
should pervade existence totally, including schooling and things truly are than with trying to bring about predeter-
social life. I shall set aside the most extreme form of multi- mined states of mind.
culturalism as being simply incompatible with liberal edu- Now here is the difficulty: To think about such matters as
cation as I have described it: This ideology would have no the dependenee on our independenee of human beings on
room for the ardent but objective involvement with intellec- their society or culture, we must be ourselves well-rooted in
tual matter, for the careful and critical study of the best a society. To reflect on culture, we must ourselves be culti-
models, and for the receptive universalism of liberal stud- vated, be shaped by a eivilization. It used to be thought that
ies. Liberal education and radical multiculturalism are sim- a considerable part of a liberal education eonsisted in ac-
ply enemies. The reasons can be given in far more detail quiring the taste and the morals, the sensihilities and the
than this occasion allows, but a more detailed exposition virtues of one's culture. Ancient eulture in this non-anthro-
would not change the judgment, I believe. pological sense invariably meant high culture. In fact, the
Happily multiculturalism covers a wide spectrum of ways of the uneducated were thought of preeisely as uncul-
agendas, and with some of them liberal educations can very tured.
well eome to terms. That was when one culture was acknowledged as prevail-
Perhaps it is time to say something more about the mean- ing. But this consensus is failing. Note incidentally that I
ing of the word multiculturalism. The word incorporates a said "acknowledged as prevailing," for it is by no means clear
term whieh denotes what is prohably the most difficult, to me that one eulture does not in fact prevail: Don't we all
swampy, theory-laden ideology-driven concepts of anthro- either use English or wish we could? (1 am thinking of the
pology. A scholar, Raymond Williams, in his book desires of real-life immigrants). Don't we all want to read
Keywords, says that it is "one of the two or three most books or wish we wanted to? Don't we all see television and
complicated words in the English language." It is a word use telephones? Don't we all speak of our rights, and make
that anyone wishing to say something definite might wish to use of our freedoms? And doesn't one and the same tradir
avoid. I would say that it has its most powerful application tions stand behind all these achievements of modern times?
precisely in contexts where the point is to divert responsibil- But that is an argument whieh, important though it is to the

multicultural controversy, I cannot pursue tonight. Inclusive multiculturalism poses enlivening problems for
The point is that when in our day the people charged with liberal education, but exclusive multiculturalism is a deadly
absorbing the young into their civilization are no longer enemy. Liberal curricula, meant to be a place for leisurely
agreed on what that civilization ought to be, two things are reflection on the human condition, cannot serve as a battle-
happening simultaneously: Not only is the old distinction ground for exclusive factions seeking empowerment and
between high civilization and popular culture lost, but so not as interested in hard truths as in supportive myths. Even
also is the old difference between respectable and disrepu- when these debates, these so-called "culture wars" have
table ways of life lost: All discernible ways are equally to be finally subsided, the wreckage could be great. A broken and
called cultures and have a right to respectful reception in discarded tradition is not easily mended and reassembled,
the academy. At the same time that old distinctions are for who will teach the teachers?
collapsing, new ones clamor for recognition. And so we get Yet there is much reason for hope even in the face of this
the multi-cultural society, in which ethnicity race, gender, inimical multiculturalism. As the various cultural studies
sexual orientation, disability and other selected properties mature, they develop backlogs of scholarship and methods
of human beings each in turn become the catalyst of a of their own and these will make them eventually as dully
cultural configuration which is thought to deserve academic academic and as repulsively respectable as any other uni-
attention. That is the "multi" in multiculturalism, the claim versity subject. Student generations turn over every four
that America is divided along many lines which delineate years, and every new generation is irritated by the estab-
many sub-cultures, each of which deserves not only human lished myths and hungry for corrective truths. But above all,
respect but academic inclusion. when the dust settles, there will be many learners, young
Or rather that is what the word multiculturalism ought to and old, who will be avid for studies attractive for their own
mean: the acknowledgement of a multitude of ways of life sake, unclouded by political or social motives. Not so very
in one country. Multiculturalism in this sense should have a long from now I think exclusive multiculturalism, the enemy
friendly relation to liberal education. For it is part of a of liberal education, will be history as an academic stance.
liberal education to free students from narrow views so that The inclusive Multiculturalism, the old-fashioned Plural-
they are open to all kinds of ways. To put it concretely: a ism, on the other hand, will bedevil the colleges and univer-
student whose liberal education had really taken hold sities for the foreseeable future. But it may well turn out to
would naturally be an avid reader of anthropological re- be a friendly devil, the kind that galvanizes rather than
ports and an appreciative observer of communal ways, fa- destroys liberal education.
miliar or alien. This kind of multiculturalism is older on this
continent than the Republic itself, as Professor Sollors,
whose work I mentioned early on, has shown. It is only the
old Pluralism in a new guise and under the pressure of some
demographic shifts. It presents the candid proponent of
liberal education with some serious and dignified problems:
what taste and sensibility, what customs and morals should
educators inculcate when many students are brought up
outside what is as of this date still the statistical main-
stream? Which of the many cultures shall become the mod-
el to be studied? Should students spend most time with
what is closest to home or with what is farthest from their
minds? Should colleges emphasize to their students the
universality of human nature or focus on its particularity?
These are, as I say, serious questions, and happily we have a
multi-institutional educational sy.stem to allow for a multi-
tude of solutions.
Unfortunately multiculturalism is not, as often used now-
adays, an inclusive term. Not all cultures are equally enti-
tled, by current multiculturalists. The aim of the multicul-
turalists that turn up in the news are not stated in a liberal
mood. Their purpose in introducing multiculturalism into
the curricula, from kindergarteri to college, is to foster "cul-
tural identity," and "racial or ethnic self-esteem," not for all
cultures but only for those that have victim credentials and
also some political clout. Thus there are plenty of daily
demands for African-American, women's and gay pro-
grams, but far fewer for Asian-American, and Hispanic
groups, while most of the large ethnic cultures of the main-
stream are not thought worthy of special attention at all.
The argument is, of course, that these are compensatory
measures: There are "marginalized" groups, groups long
pushed from the center of power, which need to assert