June 2, 2005

Review advocates more dead white male authors; liberals not surprised

{Hey, this is my first post. It's a little bit long--and this is just the first part.}

Just like many of the criticisms in Thomas Monahan’s editorial in the newest issue of the Review, I agree with many points the articles on the state of Dartmouth’s cultural literacy, but I abhor the spirit in which those points are framed and utterly disagree with the underlying philosophy.

Monahan’s editorial proves once again why the Daily Dartmouth sucks balls, is totally unprofessional, and is run by a bunch of power-hungry ego-trippers. (Actually, that’s not entirely true—I like many people who work on the D, but only one has any editorial responsibility.) But Monahan does not make his point in an adult, responsible manner but rather slaps himself on the back for being a great reporter so hard that he spits out personal attacks that I thought were beneath the dignity of even the Review’s editorial policy. Monahan’s underlying point is not that the D is incredibly partial and run by irresponsible jerks, but that Monahan thinks that he is a great reporter and was personally wrong. The issue Monahan stresses is not journalistic integrity; it’s personal pride.

In a similar vein, I sympathize wholeheartedly with the Review’s complaint that students cannot pass a quiz on Western culture that did not have a single difficult question. It bothers me to no end when in an English class, the professor has to explain what Plato’s Cave was or how Freud organized the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind or what iambic pentameter is. I am personally a huge fan of studying the classics of Western literature; I nearly went to St. John’s College (the home of the Great Books program). Believe me when I say that I would be the first to sign up for Dr. Platt’s Proposed Curriculum.

However, that is a personal preference and I would not venture to impose my interest in Plutarch on an Engineering major or even on a WGST major. But when I say I am a fan of the Western Classics I understand and acknowledge exactly what that means—the study of the literature produced by dead white males. To me, that is simply a descriptive evaluation, not an argument against their value or their interest.

I would not venture to impose my interest in dead white males on an Engineering major simply because I know how little reading Racine or Machiavelli will help her build a bridge in fifteen years.

Before I go any farther, let me still the tremblings in the hearts of any con reading this: I am not, repeat not, an advocate of specialized education. I believe a Physics major should be able to tell a Rembrandt from a Renoir as easily as an art history major. I also believe an Art History major should not have to hesitate before reciting the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. I believe that our culture should encourage individuals who are well-educated in a variety of fields. This is precisely why I am at a liberal arts college.

But those words “our culture” raise the first of my three points about why the idea of an extensive core curriculum is problematic.

There is no longer any “our culture” that can be defined or reflected by a course that starts with the Hebrew Scriptures and ends with Heidegger, as Dr. Platt’s does. That is because our culture is no longer composed of rich white males with enough money and connections to receive a liberal arts degree without worrying about what happens after college. It is not composed of dapper, knickerbockered, straw-hatted dilettantes with a croquet mallet in one hand and a copy of Aristotle’s Politics in the other. Plato, Aristotle, and even Jesus Christ may be the foundation of American society, but how many of us live any longer at the foundation? The time for Aristotle as a requirement is over, as is the time when knowing three of the twelve apostles would be a marker of intelligence rather than simply religious affiliation. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but international mergers are no longer predicated on whether both sides know who the hell founded Rome. Our culture has expanded, and the attempt to define it as consisting of only dead European males (with a token Arab or two) is an attempt to deny that expansion. Such behavior is the intellectual and pedagogic equivalent of sticking one’s head in the sand.

I'll write about my other two points later. I have finals and shit to do.


  1. Anonymous11:05 PM


  2. "That is because our culture is no longer composed of rich white males with enough money and connections to receive a liberal arts degree without worrying about what happens after college."

    If it's true that our culture is no longer dominated by rich white males, why do you keep complaining about rich white males running everything?

  3. I actually wrote "composed of" not "dominated by," but thanks for reading.
    I did leave out "solely" or "only" before "composed of," but I thought that was kinda obvious.

  4. Anonymous1:46 AM

    Thanks you for this measured and well-informed post.

    You don't want to impose, but there is no way for to go through Dartmouth having read Plato, Machiavelli, Milton, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Proust and others even if I wanted to. Shouldn't there be a way to do this, like Yale's Directed Studies program?

    Also: what do you think the specific point of a liberal arts education is. You seem to paint it as a game for rich boys from a forgotten era to play. What's the point of reading books, I ask you.

  5. As far as I am aware, there are or have been within the past two years (beyond that I cannot say; I'm a sophomore) classes on all those writers, even Proust (last fall, I think). I think your point is, though, that students should not be forced to cobble together a curriculum catch as catch can. I agree. But to suggest that it is an essential part of college or life itself is overreaching.

    I agree with one of the authors of the Review (I forget which, but apparently Ellis writes everything anyway) that one reads to become a part of a community. But to paint this so-called canon as forming a universal community, that's crap.