On Teaching Western Civilization

By Anthony Esolen

This is just an excerpt.  The original is long, but well worth your time.

“This time around I wrote an article for Crisis, taking note of the wild array of cultures to which we introduce our students. For this is, of course, the very fat and very weak underbelly of our critics. As a matter of plain fact, the sociology professor who complains about my lack of diversity is himself the most culturally monochromatic of scholars. He teaches about cities that he can visit by riding on a train. He teaches about people whom he can call up on the telephone. He assigns books and articles written in English, about people who speak English, who watch the same television we watch, listen to the same bad music, play the same sports, and so on. I cannot take a train to ancient Athens. I cannot call Thomas Aquinas on the telephone. There are no YouTube videos of Shakespeare directing his actors.

The material I teach in the first year of DWC spans four millennia, from ancient Babylon to the end of the Renaissance. This year’s entries were originally written in Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, old French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. We are in Jerusalem with David, on the coast of half-Christian England with the poet of Beowulf, in Rome with Cicero, in Madrid with Calderón, in exile with the Florentine Dante, and in London with Shakespeare. We have studied the Parthenon and Saint Peter’s, Giotto and the stained glass windows of Chartres, Arthurian romance and the poetic philosophizing of Lucretius. It is utterly preposterous to say that we are anything but multicultural. We study cultures, and there are a lot of them, and they diverge far from ours and from one another. A Viking chieftain is not a Roman senator or a Christian friar. Xerxes is not Francis Xavier.

But I know that none of that really counts. One of the student protesters, abashed, has written in our newspaper that even though a Viking is admittedly “diverse” from anybody we may meet on the street now, studying the Vikings does not serve “the larger purpose” of diversity. And thus has he unwittingly given up the ballgame.

He and the students are not really interested in studying cultures other than ours. What counts for them as “diversity” is governed entirely by a monotonous and predictable list of current political concerns. If you read a short story written in English by a Latina author living up the road in Worcester, that counts as “diverse,” but if you read a romance written in Spanish by a Spanish author living in Spain four hundred years ago, that does not count as “diverse.” It probably does not even count as Hispanic. If you pore over the verb system of Old Icelandic so that you can stumble around in the sagas of Snorri Sturluson, that does not count, despite the fact that the sagas are utterly different from any form of literature now written. But if you collect a few editorials written by Toni Morrison, that does count, despite the fact that they are written in English and that you have read hundreds of such.

That already is unreality aplenty. But there is more, and this is hard to talk about. I have said that it is absurd to pretend that you can have anything of substance to say about a curriculum in the history of science when you don’t know anything about the history of science. But what if you know hardly anything about anything at all? That is an exaggeration, but it does capture much of what I must confront as a professor of English right now, even at our school, which accepts only a small fraction of students who apply for admission. Nor, I’m afraid, does it apply only to freshmen. It applies also to professors.”

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One Comment

  1. Christine Shah
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    This was my exact experience of college. I was surrounded by a great many people, professors included, who knew very little of anything and almost nothing in depth. My college prep Jesuit high school had been rigorous and committed to truth-telling and multiple viewpoints. College was bland, easy and committed to a “correct” viewpoint. A total waste of time in most classes. I do still use much of what I learned in my psych major courses in my dealings with people in my life, but I was dismayed to find that many of my electives were not the engrossing, challenging, truth-seeking experiences I desired. My friends took Social Dance and Fitness as electives and I took advanced lit classes, sociology classes, world religions, ancient cultures and many of them required that I tread carefully so as to not offend the PROFESSOR. Meanwhile I was disgusted with the shallow treatment given to many of the subjects. My autodidactic nature serves me better than my bachelors ever did.

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