In case you aren’t sick of the subject, I have written a full-length take-down of the recent Harvard Salient article on Ethnic Studies. It originally appeared in today’s Harvard Independent. Check out my HPR blog post from last week if you want the pithier, more sarcastic version.

An Embarrassment to Harvard Conservatives

Harvard conservatives, those Aristotle-citing, modernity-bemoaning, Western canon-promoting Young Burkes, are generally an earnest and thought-provoking bunch. The seriousness and sincerity of their views help to maintain their reputation in this overwhelmingly liberal community. But in the March 15 issue of the Harvard Salient, the house organ of the Crimson Right, Patrick T. Brennan embarrassed his fellow conservatives by attacking in outrageous terms Harvard’s recent creation of an Ethnic Studies secondary field. His article represents a departure from the lovably idiosyncratic conservatism that many people, including many liberals, expect from the Salient. Brennan’s views are not idiosyncratic; they are ignorant.

To put it bluntly, Brennan’s case against Ethnic Studies is this: people of color just aren’t interesting or important, and they haven’t contributed much of value. If you assumed that this sentiment would be couched in much more subtle terms, you’d be wrong. Brennan doesn’t shy from stating outright that the experiences of non-white Americans are “not of paramount importance to a university education,” and that many cultures have been “underappreciated or marginalized, often for good reason.” Embracing the label of “Eurocentric,” he doesn’t flinch from calling Women and Gender Studies “useless” and concern for diversity “imaginary.” The possibility that there might be as much value in Latin American writers as in Latin ones is laughable to him.

You might think that such prejudice is the result of simple unawareness of the world outside the Harvard Classics department. If Brennan would only read some Frederick Douglass or Gabriel García Márquez, he’d come around, right? But Brennan makes a point of showing that he actually knows some things about people of color, which makes his dismissal of their importance all the more offensive. He makes ostentatious reference to the Abbasid Caliphate, which he says was an exception to the rule of non-white ignorance, and to Martianus Capella, a Berber man who was, according to Brennan, “the first man to delineate officially the seven liberal arts.” You’d think that kind of accomplishment would spark Brennan’s curiosity: perhaps people of color have made other important contributions? The thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

But politically correct liberals, Brennan and others say, value subjects like Ethnic Studies just because of their racial provenance, not their “actual” importance. If you really think about it, they imply, that makes liberals the true racists. But they disregard the possibility that “how people of color in the United States have historically experienced social and political institutions” might be a genuinely valuable subject of inquiry. For Brennan and his ilk, nothing that wasn’t considered important a hundred or a thousand years ago could possibly make the grade now. And they always neglect the fact that racial ideology influenced those long-ago determinations of importance.

The arrogance of Brennan’s point of view is startling. Conservatives like him see creeping totalitarianism in the academy’s cultural relativism, but they are the only ones policing the boundaries of respectability, ruling some people in and others out. They see themselves as victims of a dominant liberal culture but can’t point to anybody who says white people are unimportant or that Shakespeare and Cicero can’t be worth studying. Their beef is not that they’re being marginalized; it’s that they’re not being allowed to do the marginalizing. Brennan once told the Salient, for instance, that Virgil’s Aeneid is more brilliant “than every literary work produced in the Southern Hemisphere.” If he had said “in the history of the world,” it would have been understandable favoritism; when he decided to single out darker-skinned races for particular disapproval, it became something much worse.

At bottom, this sort of attitude stems from concern about the breakdown of authority. Yearning for clarity and simplicity, many Harvard conservatives gravitate towards traditionalism in the arts, authoritarianism in religion, and essentialism in philosophy. They came to Harvard and were dismayed to find that nobody here will tell them what to learn, nobody will dictate what they have to consider important. The Core Curriculum and General Education, as most recognize, are pale homages to the idea that there are things every smart person ought to know.

And on one point I agree with them: Harvard should get some spine and figure out what it really wants us to know and to do. But, as former Salient editor and current New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ‘02 pointed out at a recent Salient-hosted event, the idea that we need a stronger core curriculum doesn’t entail that it should be exclusively composed of dead white males. The canon can and should be broadened. The most important ideas in the world were not all written on papyrus — an invention of the Egyptians, by the way.

Brennan’s article represents the logical end point of the deliberately anachronistic philosophy of many campus conservatives. “Curricula,” Brennan says, “should be essentially conservative and permanent.” In his view, contra Douthat, the canon cannot change. It has always been the same and will always be the same, for if nothing in the last 2,000 years of world history has made change necessary, nothing will. In the mind of this type of conservative, we know nothing now that wasn’t known during the Age of Pericles or the Pax Romana. The only interesting academic debate is between those who prefer the former and those who prefer the latter.

What a shame to look at two thousand years of human history and conclude that it’s been one long decline. No sophisticated progressive thinks we’ve been marching uninterrupted towards heaven on Earth, but no serious conservative can compare the modern world to ancient times, or today’s America to that of the 1950s, and honestly long for a restoration. There might be some good traditions that we ought to bring back, some worthwhile values that modern society does not recognize. But an argument has to be made for each individual tradition and value. Nothing is good just because it’s old.

Brennan and his defenders ought to heed Douthat, whose conservative, traditionalist bona fides are unimpeachable. Asked what courses he would recommend for a conservative Harvard student, Douthat suggested finding the most left-wing professor on the faculty. He said that Harvard conservatives can get the best education of anyone here, because they can constantly be challenged, forced to discard preconceived notions and to defend what is actually worth defending. I wish Brennan could have heard this advice before he wrote his article. Maybe he would have stopped wondering why no one appreciates Virgil as much as he does, and started wondering why he can’t think of anyone interesting or important when he thinks about people of color. If this brouhaha leads him to begin that self-examination, I promise I’ll finally get around to finishing the Aeneid.

Photo credit: Flickr stream of TravelingMan

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