Multiculturalism and Western Civilization

William H. Young

Of the many adverse effects that multiculturalism has had on America, those of cultural and moral relativism and political correctness have arguably been the most broadly damaging. Those beliefs have led our society towards a lowest common denominator of mediocrity relative to the standards of knowledge and excellence established by Western civilization.

In the late-twentieth century, the American academy chose multiculturalism—over the meritocratic ideal of progressivism—as the dominant ideology for future elites and the nation. The university became the vehicle for implanting multicultural dogma in students throughout the American education system, following cultural-Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s battle cry of “capture the culture” through the institutions in which consciousness is formed.

The consequences of that ideological agenda—the substitution of social reform, multicultural trivia, and political correctness for knowledge—have been devastating for education. By 1983, A Nation at Risk warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” But after decades of political rhetoric about reform, social constructionism and multicultural ideology continue their dominance in both public and higher education with still-worsening outcomes.

Cultural determinism underlies the doctrine of political correctness: one must embrace multiculturalism’s new moral absolutes: diversity, choice, tolerance, and sexual orientation. There must be uniformity in thought, speech, and behavior about culture, which constructs human nature. New standards of cultural and moral relativism—expressed through political correctness—have been spread through the media and our cultural elite to society as a whole.

Multiculturalism rejects the ideals and bourgeois values of Western civilization and sees only pathologies embedded in the social fabric of America. It presents the American historical narrative as one of subjugation and oppression of groups such as women, blacks, and other minorities, which is rooted in the work of Marxist historians and social scientists, notes Peter Wood in Diversity (2006). Multicultural ideology seeks to remake America into an egalitarian society with group, rather than individual, values.

Multiculturalism’s mantra of morality is that one must not be judgmental—except in condemning and disparaging Western civilization. Not only is that tenet hypocritical and enervating, it flies in the face of Western history and human nature. Ironically, modern science is confirming the view of the British Enlightenment on which America was founded: being judgmental is the essence of what makes us moral beings. Evolutionary psychology is finding that human nature contains an innate moral sense or instinct that lets us live in cooperation and happiness. The moral sense provides the emotional responses to prevent harm to the individual or the other; seek fairness through sympathy, reciprocal altruism, and punishment of cheaters; and strengthen loyalty to the community by sharing solidarity and conforming to norms.

Underlying its other effects, multiculturalism is driven by the principle of relativism: belief in changeable standards. That is, concepts such as right and wrong, goodness and badness, or truth and falsehood are not absolute, but change from culture to culture and situation to situation. There are no truths, only passing assertions grounded in contemporary culture. Since there is no common human nature, there is no basis for an objective understanding of right and wrong.

Multiculturalism holds that only cultural artifacts and particulars such as ritual, superstition, kin relationships, dress, diet, and sex are important. The transcendent ideals, abstract ideas, and traditional wisdom of Western civilization that informed America and contributed to its values have been exorcised and replaced by the superficial detail of everyday life. Like the Greek Cynics, present-day multiculturalists argue that wisdom comes from habits of daily living, not from knowledge or tradition. Multicultural trivia are as valid and important as knowledge. But cultural relativism results in a race to the bottom rather than to excellence and advancement in a society or individuals—one principal reason for the debasement of our children’s education and capabilities.

Even America’s cultural showcase to the world, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has been converted into an outlet for multicultural propaganda and relativism. After touring that institution, New York Times columnist David Brooks observed that the role of individuals and personal greatness in shaping society has been eliminated. He captured the essence of the values of cultural relativism: “If the curators of the Smithsonian’s American history museum were asked to do an exhibit on the Book of Exodus, they would devote room after room to Israelite walking sticks and totally ignore the Ten Commandments.”

In his History of the Idea of Progress (1980), sociologist Robert Nisbet noted the baleful prospects of such thinking:

I use “knowledge” in William James’s sense of “knowledge about” in contrast to “knowledge of.” The first is the province of the scholar, scientist, historian, philosopher, technologist, and others whose primary function is that of advancing our knowledge about the cosmos, society, and man. The second is, as James noted, the common possession of all living beings and describes simply the habits, adjustments, and techniques we employ in the business of living.

Multiculturalism’s ideological agenda has turned our schooling from learning “knowledge about” to acquiring “knowledge of” cultural minutiae.

The Greeks established the standards of knowledge that became, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, those of the West and America. These include the primacy of intellect; reason and logic; mathematics and science; historical thinking; and the meaning provided by great literature and art—to civilize human nature.

Multiculturalism rejects any hierarchy of artistic value, dismisses the canon of high Western art as “unjustly privileging some works over others,” and denigrates artistic greatness and singular achievement as “cultural imperialism.” The art critic Robert Hughes explains why: “Quality, the argument goes, is a plot. It is the result of a conspiracy of white males to marginalize the work of other races and cultures. To invoke its presence in works of art is somehow inherently repressive.” Western art and culture must be diminished by any argument possible. This deprives our people of an appreciation of Western art and the enrichment it provides to the human eye and mind.

More extensively, multiculturalism denies the human capacity for innovation and transformation, for making ideas and artifacts that are not simply different but also often better than those of a previous generation or another culture, advancing the enlightenment and enjoyment of all peoples. Not surprisingly, this has led to a lowest common denominator of mediocrity in our culture and society.

The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from the college educations of our elites, replaced by the social sciences. Our college-educated elites are not only ignorant of Western civilization and American history, they have been deprived of even the tools by which to objectively judge them—like the situation that confronted the humanists at the beginning of the Renaissance. The humanists were convinced that a major source of the superficiality and superstition that prevailed in their time was an ignorance of the classical past and that, therefore, a recovery of that past would serve as an antidote.

Similarly today, our colleges and universities need once again to teach the “knowledge about” of Western civilization (as recommended by NAS), to recover the ideals and lessons of the past that made America an exceptional nation.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002). 

Image: Publicdomainpictures, Public Domain

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