Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Elephant Again

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So, you know, ack.

I refuse to do it.

I’m with Newman on this one–knowledge is not divisible.  If you only know the trunk, or the left foot, or the tail, you don’t know the elephant.

So, do I think “culture” can be taught?

Sure I do.  After all, they taught me mathematics, and I hated it.  I still do.

Mathematics is “culture.”   So is biology.  So is physics.  So is chemistry.  So is philosophy, history, intellectual history, painting, literature, and music.

You either know it all–or at least know enough to see the outlines of the whole–or you can’t really know anything. 

You may not like it, or any of it, but you can be taught to know it. I’m still of the opinion that it isn’t possible to teach people to like things.

And I agree, this is really the outline for what used to be called the “college track” high school program.  It’s largely a secondary school program in England, too.

By the time I got to high school, however, the teaching of this stuff was largely fragmented and disjuointed–there was no attempt to connect, say, Sophocles and Aristotle (if you got Aristotle at all) with Pythagoras and Euclid, or even Aristotle’s “natural philosophy” (the beginning of what would become botany) with his ethics.

And yet all those things are connected.   I would say that Aristotle’s ethics, and his politics, are inexplicable if you don’t know his “natural science,” because the same assumptions and observations of the world underllie both.

As for teaching about other civilizations, of course we should–I just think we need to teach about our own first.

The problem with the people who proclaimed that the West was an evil imperialist hegemon isn’t that the didn’t know about the way other societies behave, but the way they had been taught the history of the West.  England can be seen as an evil imperalist hegemon, or it can be seen as the country that brought the end of slavery and the end of suttee to the world.  The same with Rome and the rule of law.

Civilization follows conquest.  One of the things a thoroughgoing education in the Western tradition would have taught these people is precisely that–and why that happens and what it means.

You can look at the roaring success of Western Civilization over all others so far and blame it on imperialism–or on a superior cultural model that lots of other people want in on.

The choice between those two ways of viewing the spread of Western civilization throughout the world is just that–a choice.  And the people who were condemining the West for imperialism were, in my generation, people who had first been taught otherwise.

But I get back to the same place–the history of ideas would certainly have taught the people you are talking about that their attitudes are unusual, largely restricted to this time and place, and the result of a very particular sequence of ideas and philosophies over time. 

The decision to treat the history of the West as one of relentless imperialist oppressiveness is not made on the basis of anyhistory, either localized or international.  I know plenty of people who know quite a bit about the Muslim role in the slave trade who still blame slavery not just on the West but on the US.

And facts will not change their minds.

The endless silliness about how the West only got hold of “Greek Learning” because the far more tolerant Islamic culture preserved the works of Aristotle and Plato while the Christian West was burning them as heretical persists in spite of the fact that there is virtually no truth in it.

Let’s face it, if West-bashing is what you’re interested in, “Western Europeans lost contact with the works of ancient authors like Plato because they were invaded over and over again by Germanic tribes, and then regained their contact when Greek Christian scholars flooded in to Italy as refugees from a Muslim empire that was perseucting them” doesn’t sound half so impressive.

If there’s a real gap in even the traditional approach to teaching Western Civilization, it’s in the paucity of information available about the Byzantine empire, and Byzantine art, scholarship, and science. 

Most people know that there is something called the Greek Orthodox Church, but they don’t know that there are Greek Catholics, called “Eastern Rite,” who worship like the Orthodox but are “in communion” with the Pope. 

Most people know nothing about the fate of Greek Christian under Islamic rule–and that’s Western history, which in and of itself would go a long way towards dispelling the idea that the West is uniquely committed to “hegemony.”

As for practicalities–I’m all for being practical, I just also think that people should actually know what the choices are before they make them. 

Right now, we’re in a situation where the vast majority of students at colleges and universities around the country have no idea that there is any other way to conceive of a college education except as vocational training leading to a specific job or career.  They are, in that sense, much more ignorant, culturally, than their grandfathers who returned to take advantage of the GI Bill, and who largely explained what they expected to get as the first generation of their families to go to college as “a meaningful philosophy of life.”

As to the overlords of political correctness–they don’t exist at places like the University of Phoenix and the other for-profit places that now enroll an increasing number of college students every year, and they don’t exist at the third- and fourth-tier places that concentrate on getting students through degrees in nursing, teaching, social work and business–and whose English departments consist of nothing but composition and children’s literature courses, and whose philosophy, sociology, and classics departments are non existent.

I’ll go back to my old thing–I wish we would just CALL the two things different things.

Practical training is a good idea–but it’s not a college education.

Written by janeh

April 8th, 2010 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Elephant Again'

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  1. Read Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece in the 4/8/2010 New York Times. A depressing commentary on the human condition.


    8 Apr 10 at 2:51 pm

  2. OK. Yes of course culture can be taught. The question is the extent to which certain aspects of a culture should be promoted–as, say, by saying no one is qualified to teach in the university who is not familiar with dance. (Though I notice dance didn’t make the short list this time.) And to say that “knowledge is not divisible” but that one only needs the outline of the whole provides tremendous space for hedging.

    For my money, you’re mixing vitamins and condiments. If you don’t know the rudiments of geography, history, science, mathematics and economics, you really shouldn’t be out there voting, and you may be prey for the first con man to come by. Music, art and literature can be a lot of fun, but they’re not in the same category.

    Which leaves philosophy, VERY broadly defined. I don’t think it’s necessary to say that everyone should have a world view and an ethical code, when it’s pretty obvious everyone does. It would, obviously, benefit them to have a reasonably consistent one.
    But if my Lit teachers push Dickens and neglect Wilkie Collins, it makes little long-term difference. I’m not sure that’s true of philosophy, and that ought to be thought through first. Philosophies are sometimes poisonous. Pretty well all the great atrocities of the past couple of centuries–say from the French Revolution on–stem from the rigorous application of a philosophy. The philosophers tell me I should pay no attention to this: sow the wheat and tares together and hope for the best rather than insisting that only wheat be sown. I think some professional bias might be a factor here. And if they’re wrong, then perhaps along with stuudying “our” civilization first, “our” philosophy might be taught first? Newman wanted an organizing principle. He didn’t say any one would do.

    History. Not responsible for what you think but don’t say. Yesterday, I could be completely educated without ever having heard of Egypt and Mesopotamia, let alone India and China. (Music made the list: Geography did not.) Now it’s “our” civilization first.
    But not even the classical Greeks thought their civilization began with them. And of course it leaves out the Old Testament prior to Macabees. Even so-so educated includes Egypt and Mesopotamia–the nice people who brought us writing, government and monotheistic religion. “Completely educated” ought to notice the other centers of civilization.
    It might make for fewer of those nasty surprises which have dotted the past five centuries of world history.

    Political correctness. So we’ve just crossed off the for-profits–about 7% of post-secondary enrollment–and the vocational schools you don’t take seriously anyway. So that would only leave the schools with about three quarters of the students? The war is long and bitter, and my side is still losing.


    8 Apr 10 at 5:35 pm

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