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The Vital Lie

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on February 2, 2001 02:37:24 UTC


It is cultural chauvinism and provincialism to believe that the content of a Western, liberal arts curriculum is something to either commend or deplore by virtue of its inherent merit. Thus, I refuse to accept that my "treasured" academics should be reproved simply because many in the Third World do not have the benefit of a liberal arts education. Think how well the Chinese or Arabs have done without Shakespeare or Foucault, and how well we have done without Lao-tse or Hafar Assafiyah. No doubt it benefits the Chinese and Arabs to learn about tragedies and comedies just as much as it benefits us to learn about Daoism or the parables of the desert. Yet, the benefit we derive from multicultural scholars is the tolerant understanding that no single national or cultural discourse is inherently superior or privileged.

Moreover, every corner of the human race may have something to contribute. That does not mean, however, that all contributions are equal. We may find esthetic appeal or spiritual power in cultures that never achieved the modern technological sophistication to put a man on the moon. But that does not mean we should equate them with our own. And even were all cultures equal, that would not mean they could all make equal contributions in the specific shaping of your utopian ideal. Still, I am thoroughly aware of the unfairness that exists in the prevention of education. But it is inaccurate to assume that a fair access to "big brains" would automatically result in demographically proportional sharing of a society's rewards, and that any deviation from such sharing is ipso facto proof of unfairness. It is also racist to assume that a liberal arts education provides a pedagogical bias towards those in the Third World on the dubious grounds that Western principles are intrinsically fundamental.

Nevertheless, if the massive numbers of American college students reflected a national boom in love of learning and a prevalent yen for self-improvement, perhaps the world would be a better place. Certainly there are introspective qualities in learning that can enrich society in ways beyond the material, which might also instill -- dare I say it -- a conscience. Yet, much of college is an implicit rejection of intellectual adventure. And currently there is a trend to shift the curriculum from being what professors desire to teach to being what students desire to learn. This shift of curricular power from teachers to students plainly reflects the unexamined "American Dream" rhetoric promoting mass higher education in the belief that everyone must be a "professional" and, moreover, "successful."

Still, I am fully aware that the "success" I deplore via retrograde capitalism is regarded by large sectors of the population as "progress." So lest we forget Ibsen, then, who said that every human being survives because of some "vital lie." Perhaps even academic institutions survive by the same. Thus, if you agree with me that the unfairness that exists in the prevention of education is due to capitalism at its worse, then you must agree with me that Harvard's vital lie is the American Dream. And it is precisely the American Dream that my "treasured" academics seek to reveal as a false dream and responsible for, not only the academic rot of Harvard's hallowed halls, but the elitist mandate of "Gods country."

B. L. Nelson

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