English Base Underlies Diversity of American Culture

June 19, 1994|By H. GEORGE HAHN II

A recent letter in The American Scholar magazine crisply expressed a point that the academic left has not yet grasped. Written by a former U.S. Foreign Service officer of German descent, the letter relates how in 1941 in a Berlin air raid shelter as British bombs pounded all around, a German cousin asked him, "You do feel yourself to be a German, don't you?" A rush of adrenalin prompted the writer to retort: "Yes, Wilhelm, my blood is German. But my citizenship is American and my heart is American and my culture is English."

"My culture is English." Rushing to dilute the curriculum further with "multicultural" course requirements, colleges across the country fail to understand that point. First, seeing America as a diverse nation, they conclude that diversity is its most important truth. And then, seeing diversity as multiethnic, they reason that America is multicultural.

It is not, of course, for a culture means far more than eating ethnic food, celebrating ethnic holidays and donning ancestral costumes to dance annually at a downtown festival. Are not the most important cultural truths about America crystallized in its Western heritage as transmitted by the English experience?

As Russell Kirk outlines in his useful new book, "America's British Culture," that experience is sixfold: a common language, English; a history evolving from Britain; a legal system based on English common law; political ideas and structures patterned on the English model; a literary heritage British to the core; and social ideals rooted in Britain.

And in his recent thick tome, "Albion's Seed," David Fischer scrupulously details 24 folkways from food, dress and child-rearing to work, power and freedom inherited by us directly from England and alive today.

Merging the legacies of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, England is the port of entry for America's Western culture. Yet the multiculturalist ironically attacks this culture with Western values forged by dead, white, European men.

And it is the multiculturalist's further strange logic that demeans Western civilization because it has not fulfilled its high ideals. Regardless, if slavery and repression of women were facts in Europe (slave derives from the Latin "slavus," a Slav in forced Roman labor) as well as among Asians, Africans and Arabs, it is the West that has provided the antidotes, from emancipation to civil rights, in America by "European" presidents, congressmen, soldiers and judges in the English tradition.

With 70 percent of recent college graduates never having taken a history course (and with real history long since only seasoning in the high school hash called social studies), most students aren't even aware of, let alone knowledgeable of, the origins, complexities and implications of the West's great tradition.

As T. S. Eliot said, "Tradition cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must attain it by great labour. It involved the historical sense, and the historical sense involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence."

Nevertheless, in hundreds of colleges, students are being steered from a rich tradition to take an affirmative-action curriculum with required courses in non-Western cultures, race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The key curricular goals are toleration (often moral neutrality) and self-esteem (as if self-esteem weren't a consequence of individual achievement), among other shallow, politically correct pieties in the name of diversity.

Diversity is not the most important truth about America. Where it is important -- in the Balkans, Lebanon, Armenia, Angola, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Iraq, South Africa -- there is violent divisiveness. In America the greater truth -- or miracle -- is how one culture unifies our diversity. Yet in college, diversity is a curricular diversion from the culture, from the intellectual engagement with the great books, people and events that make America still the world's best hope.

Though some multiculturalists would actually exchange Shakespeare for healing chants, few would replace automobiles with rickshaws or computers with signaling drums. And none would visit a witch doctor for coronary care, countenance female infanticide and clitorectomies, cast themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, cheer a caste system, applaud bloody coups and despots, be tolerant of torture and open-minded about slavery.

Yet many multiculturalists teach, in the cause of liberal open-mindedness, as if they would grant cultures still practicing such customs a moral equality with -- if not superiority to -- Western ways. And having themselves studied Western civilization in college, they would now deny that privilege to their own students. Their ethical compass spins wildly.

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