Culture wars: a feeding frenzy of self-identification Multiculturalism: Ecstatic belongingness has run amok.

The Argument

November 19, 1995|By Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Far from being bastions of civility, civilized and civilizing places that give students a safe place to learn and develop, schools have become battlegrounds for skirmishes in the "culture wars." Subject to pressures from government on the one hand and outraged parents and "communities" on the other, the prestige and independence of public schools have been eroded to a point where it seems a wonder they can function at all.

What children are taught at school can be - indeed, often should be - a kind of counterweight to what they learn at home or in the streets. But these days, attempts to teach students about Western culture, or instill in them a respect for the "American values" that are also the values of the Enlightenment, are likely to meet with opposition from both the Left and Right extremes of the political spectrum.

The problem is not only illiberal "liberal" policies like busing and bilingualism that encourage kids to see themselves in terms of race or national origin. Nor it is only the rise of ethnic studies and other programs emphasizing separatism at the expense of unity.

Many of the current "conservative" prescriptions for fixing the problem - home schooling, privatization, vouchers - threaten to have the same effect of feeding the frenzy of racial, religious and ethnic self-identification that has already been undermining our national sense of civility and common purpose.

Back in the 1960s, when much of this trouble all began, Todd Gitlin was president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, a.k.a. "SDS."

Now a professor and pundit, still concerned with maintaining a viable Left alternative to the Right-ward march of political opinion over the last three decades, he offers a trenchant analysis of the crisis in his book, "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars" (Metropolitan Books. 294 pages. $25).

He begins with a graphic account of a battle over books that epitomizes the ultimately self-defeating tendency of the rage for "political correctness." In Oakland, Calif., in 1992, a textbook compiled by a well-known multiculturalist historian, designed to provide coverage of the experiences of the many groups involved in American history, ran into intractable opposition from minority spokespersons still not satisfied that their story was being properly told.

Blocked from using the book, teachers had to invent their own curricula or fall back on the previous text, which everyone acknowledged was actually less "progressive" than the one under fire.

This sorry tale is followed by a provocative account of how a political movement that once spoke a language of "universal" values, concerned with the "common good," was transformed, in Mr. Gitlin's words, into "an ill-fitting sum of groups concerned with protecting and purifying what they imagine to be their identities."

Common ground

Coming, as it does, from an academic Leftist sympathetic to multiculturalism and alarmed at the Right's success in wooing centrist voters, Mr. Gitlin's critique of multiculturalism run amok is highly interesting. Identity group politics, he believes, gave members of the designatedly oppressed groups an "ecstatic" sense of belonging (not to mention self-righteousness) that unfortunately diverted their attention from the larger economic and social problems threatening Americans of all races, creeds, and genders. Instead of focusing on past injuries, he suggests, members of once-oppressed groups should be looking for common ground.

History can be a dangerous game, although often it seems American students are in little danger of knowing much about it.

Sometimes, looking at places like Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia, you have to wonder if many people wouldn't have been better off not knowing history. In Northern Ireland, there are teen-agers - Catholic and Protestant - who haven't even finished high school, who are nonetheless all too keenly aware of the centuries of atrocities inflicted on their group by the monstrous other side as far back as the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In the former Yugoslavia, Serbian memories stretch even farther - to the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. You have to ask yourself, mightn't young people, their heads filled with incendiary tales of ancient grievances, be leading happier, more productive - or, at any rate, longer and less harmful - lives if all they had on their minds was saving up for a new guitar or debating whether to dye their hair blue.

Banishing the study of history would, of course, be as impossible as it is undesirable. Whether history is gleaned from a fifth-grade teacher discussing the Declaration of Independence, a Hollywood movie about the Old West, or a grandparent recalling what is was like to grow up in the Depression or serve in a war, the past is all around us, quite literally "omnipresent."

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