The `multicultural' lie

May 18, 2004|By H. George Hahn II

THE COMMENTS about the divisiveness of diversity by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer are on the mark.

Rushing to dilute the curriculum further with "multicultural" course requirements, colleges across the country, like many of those outraged by Mr. Ehrlich's and Mr. Schaefer's remarks, fail to understand that American culture is English. Seeing America as a diverse nation, they conclude that diversity is its most important truth. And then, seeing diversity as multiethnic, they conclude that America is multicultural.

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

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

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

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

With not one of 55 elite colleges polled in a recent survey requiring a course in American history, most students aren't even aware of, let alone knowledgeable about, 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 labor. It involves ... 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" (once a grammatical term), class, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The key curricular virtues are toleration (often moral neutrality), sensitivity (read: "thin-skin"), self-esteem (now a given, seldom an earned power) and "nonjudgmentalism" (that all-purpose liberal judgment), 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, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa - diversity becomes violent divisiveness.

In America, the greater truth - or miracle - is how one culture unifies our diversity. Yet in college, after years of high schools' marinating minds in the pieties of multiculturalism, diversity is a curricular diversion from the intellectual engagement with the great books, people and events that make America still the world's best hope, even for the refuse-to-be-assimilated immigrant who wants our culture as a cure while rejecting it with a curse.

Though some multiculturalists would actually exchange courses in Shakespeare for ones in 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 or clitorectomies, cast themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, applaud bloody coups and despots, be tolerant of cruel and unusual punishment, laudatory about theocracies 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 equity with - if not superiority to - Western ways. And having themselves studied Western civilization not so long ago in college, they would deny that privilege to their own students. Their ethical compass spins wildly.

The American compass points steadily to the classical West, via England. Our national culture believes in equality before the law, due process, civil rights, freedom to speak, to worship, to keep arms and defend ourselves, to own property, to vote, to move about freely.

While Americans feverishly disagree about policies, we fervently agree about these English principles to debate and resolve them. But how can debate and citizenship even begin if not in a common language? America may be gloriously multiethnic, but it is not multicultural. For the better of all hyphenated Americans, starting with the language, it is an English culture.

And that culture is our common and precious tradition. The academic and political danger now is not so much in having a closed mind about other cultures, but an empty mind about our own. For academics and demagogues to close their mouths to that danger is worse than ignorance. It's a lie.

H. George Hahn II is an English professor and director of the master's in humanities program at Towson University.

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