Western Civilization, Inequality, and the Diversity Shell Game

J. Scott Kenney

Since the mid-1960s, the Western canon has been steadily purged from universities in favor of a trendy identity-based curriculum. The 2011 National Association of Scholars report that traced the decline of Western Civilization survey courses at American colleges (1964-2010) found not only that such courses “have virtually disappeared from general education requirements,” but that American history, seen as an extension of European history, is also in steep and steady decline.1 Perhaps the most outstanding sign of the rejection of the traditional curriculum occurred at Stanford University, where, after student protesters famously chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go!” in the late 1980’s, the introductory survey courses were dropped in favor of more “diverse” options. A recent attempt at Stanford to reinstate Western civ as a requirement for graduation included a student ballot initiative, but it was rejected in April of 2016 by a 6:1 margin of the student body.2

Yet, in recent decades, it has been noted that changes in the curriculum to minimize Western civilization content only facilitate increased radicalism and divisiveness over racial, sexual, and gender politics.3 Perhaps most disturbingly, much of this is being done in the name of multivalent, liberal sounding terms like "tolerance," "equality," "fairness," and "justice" rooted in the West’s own Enlightenment traditions. These developments go beyond healthy self-critique. Rather, we are witnessing a debilitating ideological struggle using our own Enlightenment precepts—plus those variants refracted through and reframed by 1960's radicalism and ensuing social changes—to fight culture wars in universities and beyond. Surveys show that political polarization has now become widespread, and the profound political and social upheavals of recent years certainly bear this out.4

Here, I consider how such policy moves have helped diminish both our intellectual and, increasingly, our social and cultural lives, meanwhile facilitating a selective egalitarianism that does not bode well for the future.

First, given the educational focus, consider the foundations of understanding. William James is famously quoted as referring to a baby’s initial perception of the world as a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” Humans do not simply perceive phenomena as given, but must have some basic conceptual framework with which to understand the world (a point also made by Kant). Indeed, Scott Greer considers “facts” nothing more than sense data arranged according to a pre-existing frame of reference. Further, Alfred Schutz, drawing upon the work of Husserl, speaks of basic, foundational recipes we draw upon to understand and effectively act in the world around us.5 Ultimately, these thinkers point out that a set of shared, foundational principles of perception and understanding is required for practical action and the furtherance of practical knowledge. In effect, one needs an intellectual home from which to apprehend the world, and to act practically both in life and in academic pursuits. To explore where you are going, you first need to understand where you are.

By no means am I suggesting that these enable us to reach the Truth with a capital “T,” but serve as orienting principles with which to accomplish what needs to be done and move forward. I would submit that the long history of the Western intellectual tradition contains both the historical depth and the broad intellectual diversity of what I would call a Meta-Paradigm, an interrelated yet diverse collection of paradigms for understanding the world around us. Unlike the smorgasbord of largely disconnected offerings in many universities today, or those which are increasingly interrelated only via a narrow, singular focus on social inequality and identity issues (“intersectionality”), the Western intellectual tradition is far broader. Certainly its rich history already contains thorough consideration of inequality, which today’s students, with little sense of history, could learn from. For example, slavery, racism, gender, and class exploitation have been most strenuously challenged in Western societies. The Western tradition also contains debates around social cohesion, truth, beauty, knowledge, varying ethical frameworks, political philosophies, varieties of justice, authority, religion—the list goes on. In effect, by either multiplying course offerings with little to hold them together, or increasingly adhering to a relatively narrow, institutionally sanctioned set of perceptual and evaluative assumptions revolving around identity and inequality, students are exchanging a broader, relatively diverse, historically rooted Meta-Paradigm for either confused disconnection, or a shrunken pretence that is comparatively narrow, frequently focused on present concerns, and intolerant of the intellectual variety found in the former. Given their strong penchant for “diversity,” this is perhaps the greatest irony of all.

Effectively, the current trend away from having a broad based intellectual foundation in the Western canon serves to either (1) confuse students’ foundational understanding of the world around them, rendering them intellectually homeless and relatively unprepared for more advanced study; or (2) truncate it into a narrow ideological set of foundational assumptions that fosters a sense of grievance rather than the curiosity, the wonder found in having a deeper well from which to draw—more flavors to taste than merely the bitterness of grievance.

This is not to say that the Western canon cannot be criticized. Nor is it wrong to expose students to world literatures, philosophies, and diverse viewpoints. The point is that without a solid grounding in perhaps the most intellectually diverse tradition (itself the product of encounters and interactions with other cultures over the course of millennia), students often have no intellectual home and have only limited exposure to the foundational ideas that have shaped today’s world. They lack a broad, diverse basis for further study. Instead, they are either confused about the basics (i.e. they are not rooted in the conceptual diversity preparing them to make connections and advance intellectually), or they are indoctrinated into a much narrower, comparatively limited, paradigm that often excludes the historical depth, richness, and diversity of the Western tradition for one with an essentially unipolar focus on inequality. In effect, they either find themselves rendered intellectually homeless, or having unwittingly exchanged a large mansion with many spacious rooms for a small, cramped room in a boarding house.

Ideology plays a key role. As I say to students: what you see frequently locks away what you don’t see, then throws away the key. I have argued that much of this can be traced to Marcuse’s idea of “repressive tolerance,” effectively the claim that, as education, media, and traditional Western ideas of tolerance are inherently repressive due to their ability to foster mental attitudes inconsistent with a just and equal society. The subtly hoodwinked populace must be "freed from the prevailing indoctrination." That is, “false consciousness” must be counteracted by "stopping the words and images" that feed it, and affirmative, partisan information slanted to the left is necessary to liberate people and restore their ability to reason. Hence, Marcuse favours the dissemination of "information slanted in the opposite direction" coupled with the withdrawal of tolerance for ideas, groups, and movements that contradict it. Meanwhile, in this new practice of "liberating tolerance," he argued that the distinction between what are ultimately repressive and liberating, human and inhuman teachings and practices can be decided empirically by a small vanguard who have "learned to think rationally and autonomously," and "not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people."6 In this sense, I explained in an earlier Academic Questions article, Marcuse proposed nothing less than a serious assault on Western ideals of free speech, democracy, and self-governance. His “small vanguard” of properly indoctrinated elites would “liberate” and “re-educate” the majority, and would by themselves determine what constitutes allowable opinion.7

While not all contemporary “progressives” in education are directly inspired by Marcuse’s ideas, they have found influence via a chain of more recent writers influenced by the “New Left” and the Frankfurt School. Following Joseph Schumpeter, it may also be that opponents of such approaches have learned from them, finding ways to turn such ideas to their benefit.8 Regardless of the pathways, the “long march through the institutions” (including education), and the near religious denigration of the Western canon and its replacement with a singular focus on racial and gender inequality has resulted in a confluence of interests between “progressives” who garner moral purity, careers, and status, and “conservatives” who often benefit from the dominant diversity frame as a marketing, public relations, and, at times, divisive wage suppression strategy. Thus, diversity has become a managerial ideology, where a hegemonic “leadership class” (a la Robert Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy”) encounters the broader population as the foil of an ideology once meant to be liberating. Diversity, in brief, justifies the “new and improved” status quo.9

I have argued that the hallmark of this situation is selective egalitarianism. This, hand in hand with the ideology of meritocracy, has become the handmaiden of an aggressive, neoliberal economic agenda—one that not only produces winners and losers, but that has had significant negative impacts on a select group—even class—of people.10 While both “progressives” and economic conservatives bask in the self-congratulatory ideological glow of their select framing of equality (i.e. "diversity"), those who lose in class terms—or who increasingly fall from the middle class—are marginalized, neglected, even blamed for their plight (e.g. "deplorables").

Various writers have touched on aspects of this theme, including Arlie Hochschild, with her idea of an “empathy wall,” gerrymandered between those whose concerns are sympathy worthy and those whose are not; Thomas Frank, who analyzes professionalism as a post-industrial ideology favoring an “enlightened” managerial class rooted in the idea of meritocracy; and others who focus on the fallout from the dominant ideological frame emphasizing race, gender, and other identity issues.11 Yet perhaps the most damning observations come from Walter Benn Michaels, who, in The Trouble with Diversity, argues that the left has come to terms with economic inequality, jettisoning class in favor of race, gender, and sexuality as a focus of protest, or even triumph. “We love race—we love identity—because we don't love class,” Michaels writes. “Celebrating the diversity of American life has become the American left's way of accepting their poverty, of accepting inequality.”12

Significantly, Michaels argues that universities have evolved into “propaganda machines . . . that have turned liberalism into a program for making rich people of different skin colors and sexual orientations more ‘comfortable' while leaving intact the thing that makes them most comfortable: their wealth." Characterizing the word "university" as but "another name for rich people's malls," Michaels details the extensive efforts universities make to promote diversity and affirmative action programs that "contribute to the collective fantasies that . . . they are meritocracies. For, if students at Harvard are appropriately diverse, we know that no student is being kept from Harvard because of his or her race or culture." Meanwhile, students of various races and cultures who attend less prestigious institutions—or none at all—are said to be there on the basis of their relatively lesser merit, an individualizing ideology that sidesteps issues of wealth in favor of neoliberalism. Thus: "Race based affirmative action, from this standpoint, is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality. The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn't help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich and that it's virtually essential not to be poor." Meanwhile, the "entire U.S. school system is . . . structured from the very start to enable the rich to outcompete the poor," enabling few to qualify for admission.

Michaels takes care to elaborate on different but complementary approaches to equality from the right and left, both of which sidestep class as structured inequality. The right prefers meritocracy, the left group rights, but both at least pay lip service to the social niceties required by multiculturalism: no group is better than any other. This, in effect, reduces class to "clique." Both left and right attack the "illusion of inequality" rather than actually addressing it, reducing politics to mere etiquette, debates about the proper pronouns to use for identity groups and “trigger” words to avoid. Social justice battles in the university are battles over diversity, which has engulfed the rich: “Diversity, like gout, is a rich person’s problem.” What makes matters worse, Michaels insists, is that this has given the right the escape hatch it needs to avoid losing power. Liberalism has supplied the right with “culture wars instead of class wars, because as long as the wars are about identity instead of money, it doesn't matter who wins.” In effect, “liberalism has ended up playing a useful if no doubt unintended role, the role of supplying the right with just the kind of left it wants.”13

Perhaps most ironically, in the face of all of this, as Thomas Frank points out, two ideological strategies are commonly employed in response. First is the ideology of education as an alleged panacea for those falling short. Thus, to the professionals dominating liberal politics "every big economic problem is really an education problem.” This is a rationalization, a moral judgement, and a vast oversimplification given the many educated individuals underemployed or underpaid in today's neoliberal economy (e.g. the jobless recovery phenomenon where the wealthy get wealthier while real median wages decline). Secondly, there is ideological distraction from income inequality by elites promoting and demonstrating concern for good causes.14

Ultimately, I am arguing that the removal by many universities of the traditional survey courses on the Western intellectual tradition must be placed in this broader context. Not only is this removal ideologically motivated and legitimated, but it renders students intellectually homeless. Now unable to make all the cognitive connections between the smorgasbord of disparate course offerings, without a broad, deep meta-paradigm to guide them, they stumble around in ideological darkness with a unipolar focus. The badly tutored student ignores or labels anything that contradicts his deficient perceptual or evaluative premises as unworthy. As what happens in society is often downstream from what happens in education, we have seen a growing, hypocritical ideology of selective egalitarianism spread through our institutions and society at large, fueled by ideological buzz words like “diversity” and “inclusion.” Such words only mask the ever growing gap between rich and poor. Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York magazine last year, said it best:

When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well . . . What matters most of all in these colleges—your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression—will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.15

Not only is our broad, diverse intellectual tradition not being passed down to future generations, the potential social and political consequences of this selective egalitarianism do not bode well for the future. This is where a civilization goes to die. Let’s hope it’s not too late to do something about it.

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