To get a bachelors degree in English literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the most prestigious colleges in America, you must take courses in Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability or Sexuality Studies; in Imperial Transnational or Post-Colonial Studies; and in Critical Theory. But you are not required to take a single course in Shakespeare.
So begins this short video featuring Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald. The video, which you can watch below, is interesting.
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But here is the particular point I want to make.
As I understand it, the attempts to highlight historical minority voices is a well-intentioned attempt to rectify historical injustice. I think this is a noble endeavor, but an impossible and even nihilistic one for two reasons.
The first reason is the danger of importing contemporary perspectives backwards in time and applying them to history in ways that are misleading. For example, it’s common to say that the canon is full of dead white guys. But the idea of “whiteness” as it exists today is a relatively recent invention. Go back in time just a couple of centuries and you will find, for example, that the lines between proper Anglo-Saxon Americans and Irish Catholic Americans was very, very stark. Blurring them together into one category and applying that category across centuries of time and continents of space is hopelessly confused and (ironically) whitewashes some particularly ugly incidents of prejudice and discrimination in our history.
The second danger is that, in our effort to right historical injustices, we run the risk of whitewashing history. I take it as a given that one of the injustices is that oppressed people do not have the opportunity to develop their talents to the extent that privileged elites do. The historical canon of Western thought reflects this reality. The best ideas tended to come from the elites. Not because the elites had more talent or were superior. Absolutely not. But because–being elites–they had the time, resources, and freedom to engage in pursuits other than bare survival. Trying to retroactively right that wrong is admirable, but impossible. Short of a time machine, we cannot go back in time and give to the victims of oppression the time, resources, and freedom of which they were robbed. The best we can do is acknowledge the fact of the robbery.
This is not to say that the elites had an absolute lock on art or philosophy. Clearly they did not, and when a great thinker or artist arose in spite of all the obstacles set in their path, we should celebrate him or her all the more for overcoming those obstacles.
But, all-in-all, I believe that we should accept the imbalanced historical canon as the complicated, fraught heritage that it truly is. There is much that is great and beautiful in it, but it’s systematic lack of diversity is an important testament to the systematic oppression and injustice of the world in which it originated. If you try to fix that by balancing the canon, you run the risk of acting as though oppression was not so bad after all, as though oppression were so light a burden that it never lead to frustrated ambitions, broken dreams, or neglected works of genius. But it did. Oppression does all of those things. That is why it is evil. That is why it impoverishes us all.