By Lee Grady
The anti-intellectuals have struck again. This time, they’re after the control of the basic freshman curriculum.
Most colleges in America today require some type of general introductory course in Literature and Philosophy. These courses offer a required reading list of truly “Great Books” that represent our cultural heritage and give a simple understanding of the progress of civilization. Students are typically given ample doses of the ancient philosophers, the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and Locke … progressing all the way to the great defenders of American democracy like Hamilton and Jefferson.
But if a certain radical element in our universities continues to have their way, the great books will be shelved forever. The freshman curriculum is now being viewed as a political tool that some radical professors would like to use in a subtle revolutionary campaign.
At Stanford University last year, 500 students and professors – joined by presidential candidate Jesse Jackson – gathered to protest a freshman course on Western literature and philosophy. Chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” these activists were calling for a new curriculum which emphasizes non-European cultures and works by “women, minorities, and people of color.”
Some educators at Stanford, along with their colleagues on other campuses which are facing similar controversies, say that our Western cultural heritage is too white, too European, and too male. They say it’s time for democratic equality on the required reading list, and would like to replace Shakespeare with Confucius, Longfellow with the feminist poets, and the Bible with the Bhagavad-Gita and African tribal music. In short, they want to uproot Western traditions, and replace them with a myriad of ethnic diversities which they feel will appear less prejudiced and more open-minded.
The Problem with Relativism
University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom pointed out in his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind that students in this country are being intellectually maimed by relativism in our classrooms. Because we have rejected moral absolutes, the curriculum has no central reference point to revolve around, and no foundation on which to rest. College-level courses have become a confusing blur because no one really knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad.
That’s the main reason why we see a movement to strike the study of Western culture from the curriculum. After all, who says Western society has ever contributed anything good to mankind? And if it did, who really knows how we could pick a “great books” list? Who knows what “great” really means anyway? What’s great to me may not be so great to the next guy. And who says the Bible is worth studying? Who says the poetry of the ancient Mayans isn’t just as worthy of our attention? Or the novels of Richard Wright or D.H. Lawrence or James Joyce?
When you eliminate moral values and absolute principles of right and wrong, then you are left with lots of questions and no answers. There is no more room for great books, great ideas, or great men, because there is no longer a means to measure greatness. In terms of the college literature course, that means that the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and Paradise Lost have no meaning or value for us today.
The Spirit of Marxism at Work
There’s more involved in this curriculum controversy than the natural conclusions of relativism, however. At the core of this argument is a desire on the part of some educators to tear down everything that the West stands for.
Although Marxists talk a great deal about the positive goals of their world mission – to rebuild or reconstruct society – we have yet to see anything positive happen after a Marxist revolution. The very nature of Marxism is destructive: it produces poverty, genocide, and economic collapse … and then institutes a slave state on top of the rubble.
The motivating force at work in Marx, Lenin, and Engels was hatred and the desire to destroy: hatred of the family, hatred of private property, hatred of wealth, hatred of individual reward. These men had no plan or program for rebuilding what they wanted to tear down. Their revolution was not redemptive, simply vindictive. This is because hatred cannot produce anything positive. Evil cannot beget good.
The anti-intellectuals in our academic community who are challenging the curriculum requirements at Stanford and other universities are being motivated by this same Marxist doctrine. They cannot allow the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the essays of Hamilton, or the poems of Longfellow to be read in the classroom because they hate the values that these writings convey. They hate biblical morality (the strongest single influence in Western culture), the concepts of freedom and democracy, and all the other contributions of Western history that have built free and prosperous nations.
The whole goal of the new Marxist, anti-Western curriculum is to remove today’s student from the values of our forefathers. They want to uproot an entire generation of young people from their entrenchment in the “narrow-minded” Western ideas of morality, property, and individual freedom under God. Then, when the operation is complete, they can interject their new, revolutionary ideas.
I am not saying that Western traditions are perfect, by any means. We are a flawed civilization with plenty of problems that were passed down from the Greeks to the Romans to the English to the Americans. But what we should be doing is looking at the positive contributions of Western society – which for the most part were all shaped by Christian ideas. How can our students ever learn to appreciate individual freedom, private property rights, the republican form of government, or representation, if they never learn where the ideas originated, or how great men worked and even gave their lives to secure them?
It’s time we challenged these anti-West critics. I agree with Herbert London, a dean at New York University, who recently expressed his concern about the Stanford incident: “If there is anything the academy needs at the moment,” he wrote, “it is a debunking of the debunkers. We need scholars who can affirm the best in our tradition, without fearing to discuss its flaws. We need teachers who can rediscover the substantive value of Western civilization without apologies to a brand of special pleaders standing on a soap box of gender, class, and race.“1
It is indeed ironic that these academicians – some of them with sincere intentions, perhaps – say that their battle is against prejudice. In the final judgment, it is obvious that they are the true bookburners.
1 Herbert London, “The Debunkers Need to Be Debunked,” Campus Report, January 1988, p. 8.