Today's Racial Controversies over Curriculum aren't NewHistorians in the News
tags: racism, teaching history, Western Civilization, political correctness, canon
That the disputes over language, canon, culture, and politics playing out on campuses since 2015 or so involve the repetition of an earlier moment in the history of the American university — the curricular battles of the late eighties and early nineties — is an increasingly common piece of wisdom. That wisdom was recently encapsulated, as I discussed a couple of months ago, by the sociologist and historian of the canon John Guillory: “For various reasons, the canon wars lapsed into dormancy in the first years of the 21st century, only to reemerge more recently, this time oriented more urgently to race than to gender.”
As Guillory hints, comparing and contrasting the earlier and later eruptions will be an important task for future historians and analysts of American higher education. Is it the case that the current debates are more focused on race than the older ones? To some extent, the answer is probably discipline-specific, and it’s true that in Guillory’s home field, English literature, the widening of the canon to include more women authors was felt to be especially imperative in the eighties. But in general, race seems to have been the paramount category in the earlier period as it is now.
One piece of evidence: a 1990 collection of essays in The New York Times, "A Campus Forum on Multiculturalism.” (Hat tip to the journalist Michael C. Moynihan, who brought the forum to my attention via a tweet.) It’s quite a time capsule, both uncannily familiar and remote. The word “multiculturalism” has fallen out of favor, replaced in general by “diversity,” but the concerns it captures will surprise no one today. The forum opens with two equally uncompromising essays, a point-counterpoint between the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, then at Stanford, and the Brandeis philosopher Frederic T. Sommers (who died in 2014).
Both Rosaldo and Sommers understood debates about “political correctness” to be primarily about ethnocultural inheritance. Rosaldo writes:
Try beginning to teach a diverse classroom with: “We must first learn our heritage. It extends from Plato and Aristotle to Milton and Shakespeare.” The students ask, “Who’s the ‘We’ ?” At Stanford, over 40 percent of the entering undergraduates are Asian-Americans, African Americans, native Americans and Chicanos. Who, they wonder, is included in the phrase “our heritage?” Are they included? Must they continue to look into the curricular mirror and see nothing?
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