Historical Views on Oppression: Having and Eating Cake

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.

(Email subscribers need to visit this post on the website because YouTube videos do not embed.)

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.

5 thoughts on “Historical Views on Oppression: Having and Eating Cake”

  1. The focus on elite white privilege is interesting. As you pointed out, this criticism is often oversimplified and misguided. It’s fine to acknowledge the background of the authors, but reading the Great Books is not primarily about diversity. It seems that diversity is considered the highest virtue when considering literature these days, but I would argue it’s really not the most important factor in reading the Great Books. We are trying to understand the ideas that shaped our civilization so that we can better understand ourselves. If one wants to change our culture, then they actually would benefit from reading the Great Books whether or not they agree with the ideas or value the perspective of a dead white guy. In fact, we are not supposed to agree with everything in the Great Books. Marx and Freud, just two authors on the list, come to mind. Do we read these authors because we wholeheartedly agree with them on everything? No. Many of the great authors don’t agree with each other, and this is evident in their works. But the ideas articulated in their writings greatly influenced the world, and we benefit from that greater understanding of the world even though we know the world is unjust. And often — in the case of slavery in the U.S. — we are able to use these ideas to reduce oppression, even though our U.S. culture had originally embraced that oppression.

    Second, one of the greatest books on the list — The Bible — was not written by privileged people. Were the Jews powerful white guys in Old Testament times? How often were they exiled and captive? Are they “white”? What about the early Christians? Were they powerful, privileged white guys? Not really. People nowadays tend to equate the Bible and Christianity with privileged white men, because many privileged white men historically embrace it, and many great works written by privileged white guys draw from Christian principles. But we forget that, just because privileged white men embrace the Bible (as do minorities around the world), the authors at the time were not privileged white men. I think you made that point even with the distinction between Anglo Saxon and Irish Catholic.

    Third, the elites of today often reject political, philosophical, and fictional great literature due to the whiteness and privilege of the authors, but are they willing to reject the great natural science and mathematics literature because the authors may have been privileged and/or white? Would the educational system discourage students from reading Euclid, Galileo, Newton, or Darwin? Because all those guys, and then some, are on the Great Books list. We seem to recognize the value of scientific and mathematical contributions despite the nature of the author, but we quickly reject the value of other influential writings merely on the grounds that the author’s background is distasteful to us. We pride ourselves on being open-minded, but we refuse to read original sources of highly influential ideas simply because of someone’s skin color and/or economic status, unless those ideas are scientific or mathematical. Then, suddenly, we recognize the value of the ideas alone. (That being said, I don’t think most college students have actually read Euclid, Galileo, Newton, or Darwin, but I doubt most university professors or students would object to reading them based on white privilege.)

  2. This depends on what you percieve as the purpose of studying history.

    Is it to learn philosophy, math etc by building one idea on top of another as they happened historically? (The ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ theory of education)
    Is it to aquaint people with (and create) a story that binds them together into one? For example a nationalist history but this lends itself to other types of groupings as well.
    Is it to develop perspective by having a context with which to frame contemporary events?
    Is it to develop a more cosmopolitan view by studying cultures and ideas similar but wierdly different than our own?
    Is it to create a common language and understanding that our modern day elite share with each other to exclude the masses and other undesirables.
    Is it to honor those in the past for their achievements?

    It seems to me that some of these purposes lead to the historical emphasizes you decry, while others are neutral to it.

  3. LT-

    We seem to recognize the value of scientific and mathematical contributions despite the nature of the author, but we quickly reject the value of other influential writings merely on the grounds that the author’s background is distasteful to us.

    In some ways, I think the pushback against the radicalization of the humanities began when humanities thinkers actually did try to reject the science and math of colonialist overlords. That’s kind of a part of what post-modernism was about, the idea that all truth is relative, not just philosophical or aesthetic claims, but even scientific and mathematical claims.

    There were folks there who seriously argued that position, but most people drew the line at that point, being unwilling to question things that seem perfectly objective (e.g. 2+2=4) and also not very much in a hurry to say goodbye to the useful inventions that stemmed from that objective approach to the world.

    But it’s not like the attempt was never made. It certainly was. It just didn’t prove overly successful, thank heavens.

  4. Jacob G-

    None of your proposed goals for knowledge strike me as compelling at all after the first one. The idea of using education to build up a national narrative or common understanding strike me, in particular, as potentially very bad ideas.

    I would definitely say that far and away the most important reason (and the only really generally valid reason from your list) is the first. I’d go farther, of course, and say that one cannot either further contribute to knowledge or astutely critique knowledge without a solid understanding of where that knowledge game from. So I am strongly in favor of teaching the history of ideas as a core part of our curriculum, both in classes like English literature but also in philosophy classes. I think basic surveys of ancient Greek and modern Western philosophy should be required for college and possibly even high school level courses.

    Of course, there are dangers down this route as well, since there is a tendency to simplify history that is actually quite messy and full of blind alleys and dead ends into a kind of “march of progress” narrative. But still: folks should have some basic conception of who Socrates and Plato were, what Aristotle was all about, and then the birth of modernity with Renee Descarte and Lock and Hume and Spinoza.

    But I think it would be quite strange to take that and then say that, “This is who we are / will be in the future as well.” In the United States in particular, we’re a demographically diverse society, and that’s going to continue. Our origins do not dictate our future, especially as we bring in more and more immigrants from Asia, S./C. America, and other locations.

  5. That’s a good point, Nathaniel. And, yes, thank heavens. Since the original liberal arts married what we call the humanities today and math and science, maybe we should consider some of the success with preserving the integrity of math and science. Maybe we can work our way backwards from math and science and slowly resuscitate the liberal arts. With the explosion of classical education in charter, private, magnet, and home schools, and smaller colleges in the past 20 years, I do have some hope that the next generation will start to put the liberal arts back together. If nothing else, the kids getting the modern “liberal arts” degrees won’t be able to hold a candle to the kids with a solid classical education. At some point, people might notice the difference.

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