...the entire Western world has suffered from a deficit of moral authority for decades now. Today we in the West are reluctant to use our full military might in war lest we seem imperialistic; we hesitate to enforce our borders lest we seem racist; we are reluctant to ask for assimilation from new immigrants lest we seem xenophobic; and we are pained to give Western Civilization primacy in our educational curricula lest we seem supremacist. Today the West lives on the defensive, the very legitimacy of our modern societies requiring constant dissociation from the sins of the Western past--racism, economic exploitation, imperialism and so on.
-- Shelby Steele
One sentence in particular struck me here: "We are pained to give Western Civilization primacy in our educational curricula lest we seem supremacist." As I read the paragraph in its entirety, I cannot help but acknowledge that it's partly correct -- we in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are conscious of our historical sins, and as a result there is a special stigma attached to imperialist, racist, or exploitative behavior.
Mr. Steele thinks this sensitivity has gone too far. He is speaking to an audience that largely agrees. They feel as though our civilization is giving up on itself, that the best cultures in the world are filled with apathy, while the worst burn with passionate intensity. Why even here in America, he is telling us, "we are
pained to give Western Civilization primacy in our educational
curricula lest we seem supremacist."
Is that true? Yes, I've heard this kind of complaint before, paired with critiques of multiculturalism's excesses and foreboding warnings about the folly of politically correct educators.
But as I reflect on my own education at quite liberal institutions of higher education, the material that is taught in California's public schools, and the stuff that every school age kid with whom I interact knows, I can't help but conclude that the vast majority of our educational curricula is thoroughly western, that Western Civilization indisputably gets primacy, and that while there are certainly a small umber of academics who are pained by the status quo, they represent a tiny minority position amid educational establishments at every level that are more or less satisfied with the way things are.
At most, they want to augment the Western canon with voices by groups historically marginalized in the West -- so yes, maybe Thomas Paine is given a little bit less time, and Martin Luther King a little bit more, but almost everything concerns the west and its frames fully and automatically.
This is perhaps least true at the university level, though it is still pretty true there, and if you think about medical school and law school, two genres that exist at lots of America's most liberal universities, you won't see much focus on Eastern medicine or Sharia Law or anything else that suggests we're pained at the notion of Western supremacy.
I don't doubt is that Shelby Steele feels as though the primacy of Western Civilization in our educational curriculum pains "us," or that the notion of Western education being under significant attack rings true to his audience. But I don't think it is so. Almost never have a witnessed this pain, and it certainly hasn't had much effect on actually challenging the primacy at issue.
There is no danger of Westerners ceding the privileged place their own civilization and its norms enjoy in American education systems -- and while I can't speak for the educational systems of every Western country on earth, the American experience is enough to rebut Mr. Steele, who claims that the entire Western world is suffering under this pathology. Also, I have a hard time believing the French educational system is giving short shrift to Western culture, especially when it concerns their own contributions to it.
What explains this anxiety?