After hitting a creative block in my quest to resume the discussion contrasting classical education with the trajectory of modern education, Brandeis University offered a spark of inspiration. While I would love to say that there are exciting, educationally beneficial things happening at Brandeis and I want to share them, the exact opposite is the case. The college has displayed a striking and inexcusable level of ignorance and indifference to the truth in their quest for diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE for short). From the New York Post’s Brandeis warns students not to use “picnic”, “rule of thumb”, calls words “oppressive”:
“A compendium of “potentially oppressive language” posted on the school’s website by its Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center also lists loads of examples of “gender exclusive,” “ableist,” and “culturally appropriative” terminology that “can get in the way of meaningful dialogue.”
Anyone who has been paying attention for the past few years is well aware of the ongoing assault on language as a way of reshaping reality. We’ve discussed it here at least once before. This isn’t a new development. To call George Orwell’s 1984 prophetic is no exaggeration.
The most striking point of interest to me in this piece was the supposed racist origins of the word “picnic”. Long ago, since first learning the word’s etymology, I thought I knew that “picnic” was derived from the French term “piqué-nique” which refers to eating a small, informal meal , mostly consisting of hors d’oeuvres, outdoors. It turns out, according to the sensitivity and diversity police at Brandeis, that the word picnic was all about picking [negroes] to lynch for entertainment while having a nice meal outside in the park. Imagine my surprise!
“According to the Oppressive Language List, the word picnic “has been associated with lynching of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating.” A suggested alternative is “outdoor eating”.
It was the stunning level of historical ignorance and deception combined with educational malpractice, which reminded me of what I wanted to say here. This is why our family has decided that a classical education, one built on the great literature and ideas of the Western canon is far superior to this ever evolving language of nothingness, increasingly decoupled from any sense of reality.
While our current education system builds curriculum and constructs ideas on the shifting sands of postmodern ideology, the great books, literature of those who have gone before, tell a human story. While the great books are written off as relics of white supremacy penned by old white men, the reality is that some of the greatest black thinkers and activists in American history drew on these classics as a foundation for their ideas. Dr. Anika Prather, whose work I am only beginning to explore, makes an excellent case for why the great books of the western canon are for everyone:
“Great Books, Prather said, “tell the human story.” She spoke with passion about how many famous people of color throughout history used the Great Books to further their goals and ideas. Activist Huey P. Newton, she pointed out, taught himself to read using Plato’s Republic—a text paid special attention to during freshman year at St. John’s—and as a result, Newton’s way of thinking was highly influenced by the thoughts and ideas of Plato. Studying the Great Books, Prather says, shouldn’t—and can’t—be only for a select few.
One author who particularly inspires Prather is Frederick Douglass. Douglass taught himself to read while still a slave, an action expressly forbidden. Once he learned to read, however, literacy became his “polaris.” His first book was The Columbian Orator, an anthology of excerpts from many of the Great Books. “By using the literature of the master,” said Prather, “he allowed these books to somehow unchain his mind well before he unchained his body from the bonds of slavery.”
In other words, even the lowliest and most genuinely oppressed people in past societies recognized the truths of liberation and human excellence. If we want to see our children educated in a way which extols the good, the true, and the beautiful, it will not happen in the context of the current governmental education model. The current model is increasingly about division, discontent, and discordant thinking masquerading as enlightenment.
Great literature doesn’t have to tell my story to be great or worthy of reading. Although it sometimes does tell my story, I need not see myself personified to gain a better understanding of the universal human experience. In fact, one might argue that seeing the similarity of the struggle and questions of life in those different from us expands our innate compassion and sense of humanity. One of my cardinal saying is (as far as I know, I can self-attribute the verbiage if not the sentiment): Humanity is a shared experience. If I have experienced it, it for sure and certain that someone else has too.
I am finally going to finish The Brothers Karamazov this summer. A 19th century Russian novelist had the ability to reach across time and space to connect with me in the 21st century. What does Dostoevsky have to say to an American woman of African descent? What principles, insights of human nature and matters of the heart could he possibly have to share with me? Plenty, it turns out:
The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
How timely a quote from a book published in 1879! Ideas grounded in truth do not change with the times, which is why the work of Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas still resonate with us centuries after their authors put ink to paper.
We dismiss these great and enduring works of human connection at our peril.
I hope, next week, to continue this exploration of classical education, its importance, and how we can revive it for the sake of the next generation.