Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?


10 thoughts on “Not a New Situation”

  1. This is fascinating, Marina Sofia! I’ve always felt this way about curricula, but this is articulated much more elegantly than I could have put it. It sounds like a very thorough, informed, and thoughtful discussion on the topic.

  2. There’s loads to talk about here, but I’ll restrict myself to musing on one: I wonder if the difference between American and Australian attitudes to religion has to do with the way people migrated to those countries. America was founded on religious grounds to start with; Calvinism is in the nation’s bones. Australia started off as a prison colony, which I would guess meant that the early religious life of the country wasn’t as significant to its identity as other things (though I don’t know what those other things might be…)

    1. Interesting thought, and one that feels instinctively right. But Jacoby does ponder why religions like Quakerism and other dissenting religions who fled Britain to escape persecution did not gain more of a foothold in the US, while the more severe ones did.

      1. Yeah, good question. I wonder if the attitude towards conversion has anything to do with it? As far as I can tell, Quakers have never really minded whether other people become Quakers or not, so their evangelism has been limited, whereas Puritans were quite keen on recruitment.

  3. I really enjoyed this one too. Also her earlier Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Aside from the interest of her subject matter, I find her prose very readable, almost as if she were there in the room talking.

  4. Really interesting post, Marina, particularly as I (like many others, I’m sure) have been wondering lately quite why America is like it is…. And that quote at the end – is it so impossible for us to reach any kind of utopia, or will the baser side of human nature always win out? Very sobering…. 😦

  5. I could pull my hair thinking about the lack of scientific thinking in the states. Many states have school curriculums which are anti-science. Some allow creationism to be taught and say that evolution is a theory, meaning unproven. Yikes. Compared to Europe, the lack of scientific-based thinking is so much worse. But remember, many people here believe in “fake news,” and do not check out the facts. I have a neighbor who voted to the current White House resident and doesn’t believe the respected media is correct, that “they” tell you want to believe.
    Anyway, what’s going on over here with migrant children is the issue of the day, and I’ve gotten out my Solidarity with all Immgrants button since I can’t drag a sign around.
    I support diversity and more diversity in writing, publishing, teaching, the arts, TV, theater, music, etc. But I’m not for cultural appropriation. When the playing field is even and women and people of color are fully represented in all areas, then a proper discussion can be held perhaps. But even then…
    When I read Beloved by Toni Morrison, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward, I knew deep in my bones that only African-American writers can tell these stories and make the reader feel the oppression that is so profound.
    And it’s true of women, too. Only women can really convey the feelings as victims/survivors of sexual harassment and abuse that they suffered from men. .

    1. Oh, boy, I feel your pain, Kathy, I really do! I just spent the weekend in Berlin and I have to say I felt that people there – even working class, not really very well educated people – were much better informed, open to debate, curious about things than here in the UK. Is it the media, is it education, is it national character – I don’t know, probably a mix of all three.

  6. I had never read any Shriver, so I was not personally surprised to hear her opinions, though I was obviously offended. It makes me sad that opinions like her are more and more common each day despite the state of the world. We are just making the same mistakes over and over again and some people are either blind or simply refuse to see it.

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