Elegies, Part 1

Peter Wood

As editor of the journal Academic Questions, I am sometimes confronted with manuscripts written in the key of lament.  Some are beautifully written and I regret having to say no thank you.  But sometimes I grit my teeth and accept one of these dirges because it addresses something pertinent to the theme of the issue even if the tone is lachrymose.

The tears are for forms of higher education that have passed away.  Sometimes they are shed in despair; sometimes in anger.  Most of them are from individuals who spent their lives teaching the humanities and who, surveying the present state of the curriculum and campus culture, feel keenly that something immensely valuable has been lost.

I turn down these manuscripts because they don’t fit the purposes of the journal.  It is Academic Questions, not Academic Laments. The goal is “to advance the traditions of humanism and intellectual freedom” by providing a place to debate “the central principles of academic life.”  Regretting cultural loss has a place in that discussion but only to the extent that it suggests a way forward.

This will no doubt strike some of my Chronicle readers as richly ironic since I am regularly accused by a clique of comment-leavers here of being a voice of nostalgia for the good old days.  I normally shrug this off, knowing how bizarrely it falls from the truth of the matter.  Let me describe the good old days as I remember them.

I attended what today would be called a progressive undergraduate college that in the early 1970s was deep into the strictures of political correctness, avant la lettre.  The college had no meaningful curricular requirements.  Like other students, I wandered freely through the course catalog.  I studied no Western history but had an assortment of courses on sub-Saharan African history and on developing nations.  I bypassed Shakespeare but studied dozens of second, and third-tier Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.  My strongest intellectual influence was an anthropology professor who introduced me to cutting-edge Marxist theory, and I was immersed in the writings of French structuralists.  Levi-Strauss’s La Pensee Sauvage was the book that opened the universe to me.  I began my lifelong quest to devour ethnographies from everywhere.

So whatever motivates my criticisms of today’s curriculum, it certainly isn’t nostalgia.  I never came within telescopic distance of a core curriculum or a Western civilization requirement.  Rather, I gradually and sometimes painfully ended up supplying for myself what my undergraduate education utterly failed to supply.  This is not entirely a gripe against my college.  I believe it offered the kinds of courses that could have given me some purchase on my own civilization.  But I ignored them.  By the time I graduated (1975), I knew a great deal more about systems of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage in highland Burmathe cosmologies of the ba-Kongo, and the economics of highland New Guinea trade systems than I knew about 19th- or 20th- century Western history.

That seemingly arcane ethnographic knowledge and my appetite for world ethnography stood me well in graduate school, and my early introduction to structuralist theory made it relatively easy to follow the post-structuralist theoretical twists and turns as academe became more and more caught up in de-centering itself from the dictates of Western rationality.  At the same time, I began to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of my own civilization.  This wasn’t an especially unusual trajectory for an anthropologist.  A good many of us are ambitious readers who come, sooner or later, to wonder how our knowledge of the rest of the world fits with the one we live in.

Some anthropologists I would say are too hasty in their efforts to close that circle.  That’s the primary fault of Margaret Mead, beginning with her youthful book, Coming of Age in Samoa, but continuing throughout her career.  She was determined to see the peoples she studied primarily as contrasts to American society, and as a consequence often committed egregious ethnographic errors.  But somewhere down the road of ethnographic study there comes a legitimate moment to consider the contrasts and similarities across the large divide that separates the West and the rest.   And it is a task that, for me, underscores the need to actually know something about your home base.

Oddly, the college curricula of today have arrived at a destination that bears strong resemblance to my own—at the time rather advanced—undergraduate program of studies.  Today, “world civilization” trumps learning anything particular about the West.  Students in general—not just eccentric individuals like me—take up the invitation to investigate the lives of people in remote places.  Ethnography has not replaced history, but history has to a great extent been ethnographized:  detailed, close-up examination of people in a particular time and place has displaced larger-scale efforts to comprehend the “sweep” of history—the transformations that can only be seen from a distance.

The cultural content of the curriculum has likewise fragmented in a manner that greatly resembles what I experienced in the early 1970s.  I learned more about polyrhythms in African drumming and Schoenberg’s experiments in dodecaphonic composition than the tonic chord.  I could have a reasonably informed discussion of John Donne’s sonnetswithout having laid eyes on Shakespeare’s, and so on.  The particularities that caught my attention were often rich and fascinating.  I did my senior honors thesis on “The Sociology of Melanesian Art.”

But at just about that point I came to some troubling recognitions, e.g. I had learned a great deal about tribal art but very little about Western art, and what little I did know was from high school and strolls through museums.  I had received a splendid send-off into the worlds of “theory,” “critical thinking,” and exotic peoples, but had acquired only piecemeal knowledge of my own society.

I’ve spent a good many years since then attempting to repair the gap, but it did leave me with a permanent sense that there were probably better ways to organize an undergraduate education.  Note, I say “better ways,” not one, perfect way that suits all and sundry. And I don’t imagine that there was a point in the past where colleges and universities found the perfect the combination of requirements, electives, extracurriculars, entertainments, and living arrangements.  It is a search that must be endlessly renewed.

The broadest objection I make to contemporary curricula is the intellectual complacency they embody.  We’ve seen a bit of that on display at the University of Virginia with the successful movement to restore the “incrementalist” president, Teresa Sullivan, who is popular with the faculty precisely because she stands for nothing in particular.  When I write about The Vanishing West—the National Association of Scholars’ report on the virtual disappearance of Western history survey courses—the nodal response of academic readers is “been there, done that.”  In response to my recent article, “Epic Battles,” one professor recalls that long ago Western Civ was among his most boring courses.  Others wonder, “What if we offered it and no one signed up?”  Those are counsels of complacency, alongside more aggressively hostile voices who find the very idea of teaching Western civilization to be a discredited and illegitimate enterprise.

I am not taking this as an occasion to re-argue the points that students have something to gain from learning the history of their own civilization and that there is a gain to be had at the level of curricular coherence in offering a foundation in Western civilization.  Rather, I am responding to the ad hominem that to find any sort of merit in studyingWestern civilization is mere nostalgia on my part.  No, I am not nostalgic for something that was already gone when I went to college.  Nor am I nostalgic for what the antique pen wrote in the chronicle of wasted time.

But I am perfectly ready to defend the possibility that our predecessors from time to time got a few things right; and that we would be wise to acquaint ourselves with their arguments rather than merely assume the superiority of contemporary memes.

I don’t have much patience with scholars who simply lament what has been lost, but those who sneer at the losses and congratulate themselves on being aligned with the conceits of the present are far more destructive.  They have the power to suppress intellectual inquiry and foreclose educational opportunity for students and, judging by their comments here, are pleased to exercise it.

Fragmentation to some degree, of course, is inevitable.  Even the unlikely student who wants to “get” everything doesn’t have the time in the space of an ambitious four-year liberal-arts education to take in all the science, history, humanities, arts, and letters that would be needed.  But there is a difference between a curriculum that gives voice to the idea that there is something to aspire to and one that settles contentedly amidst the fragmentation as the preferred state of things.  And I suppose there is a further difference between either of those and the one that offers quick and easy routes to synthesis, such as multiculturalism, diversity, or the latest, sustainability.  Genuine synthesis is a hard thing with no certain outcome.

The kind of response to this fragmentation, however, that settles on extolling great figures of the past, neglected books, and marginalized ideas leaves me doubtful.  I see a place for the extolling, but not for the settling.  And I want to explore that further in another post or two.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on June 28, 2012.

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