This article about a protest over a white teacher possibly teaching black history in the Cleveland area is pretty high in blogdex, so there’s a large amount of commentary out there if you want to look. I find it pretty freaky, I do understand that a black teacher probably has some insights into black history that a white teacher could not give, but the reaction is highly disproportionate to the problem in my opinion. This echoes something I saw on CSPAN a month ago, where Diane Ravitch was promoting her new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, and a black woman rose up and rambled for about 10 minutes how blacks should teach black history and women should teach about sufferage and so forth. Ravitch ignored the ramble and replied orthogonally to the question/assertion. Whites, especially liberals, tend not to hold the same standard of stupidity to minorities that they would their own group, mostly especially with blacks. If a white woman had gone on in a rant about this subject Ravitch would certainly have taken a time out and pointed out that this sort of preoccupation with identity over the core area being studied is part of what leads to political pressure on textbook makers in the first place. It is also a sympton of what I see most well developed in black Americans, but also starting to infuse the thinking of other minorities & women, a preoccupation with your own group to the extent that there seems a neglect of broader learning because it is unnatural and uninteresting. John McWhorter, a black man, has been one of the few to publically comment on this topic, both in Losing the Race and in Authentically Black. McWhorter recalls how some of his black linguistics buddies in grad school teased him for picking a topic relating to Russian dialects to do a presentation on, when he should have perhaps focused on Carribean pidgins or something “more appropriate.” He also criticizes well educated blacks like Randall Robinson who have contempt for classical learning that they consider “Eurocentric” but offer little in the way of alternatives .
More broadly interpreted, this gets to a topic that serves as part of Bernard Lewis’ overall thesis expressed in What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, the lack of curiousity about other cultures and exoganous knowledge that seems prevelant in some areas of the world. Whether Lewis is right or wrong about Islamic culture, the broader question is important, and the assumptions that underlay it merit attention. Many non-white elites have traditionally looked to Europe after its post 18th century domination of the world as a model, intellectually and historically, schooled in the classics and well informed of the methodologies that took European the nations to the commanding heights in science and government. This does not mean a neglect of one’s own culture-Hindu barristers remained Hindu, Lee Kwan Yew might have been from an Anglophile family, but he remained committed to Confucian values and eventually schooled himself in Mandarin, while the elites of Latin America could both look to Europe for inspiration but maintain their own literary and artistic culture. Conversely Europeans have traditionally evinced a deep interest in the cultures that they surpassed and conquered, it was a European that discovered the relationship between Sanskrit and Latin & Greek, it was the West that rediscovered the ancient Near Eastern anquities lost to the memories of history, the examples are endless. Much of what we know about the breadth and depth of non-European cultures is because of Europeans.
Yet in recent years the rise of identity politics has infused a certain political aspect to much of learning & scholarship, especially outside the natural sciences. Emergent fields like Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, and so forth exist more to facilitate political movements and self-esteem than forward knowledge and understanding apart from personal considerations. This has important ramifications on the individual level-as some radical feminists & racialists assert that science is “patriarchal Western masculine thinking” and that those who are not white men who participate in the field are somehow sell-outs. These movements also tend to discourage “oppressed” groups from entering something that they view as Other and the domain of white men. On a milder level, I am regularly asked why I am interested in a variety of topics, how do I know so much about Roman history, Jewish history, Chinese history, etc.? There is no surprise at my scientific knowledge because there is a stereotype that South Asians are good at that in the United States, but my non-scientific background seems confusing to many, who assume that I would not have any interest in things outside my “culture’s background.” Of course, there is rich irony in this because most assume that I am of Hindu culture based on my physical appearence, when in fact I am from a family that has a strong Muslim identity (my paternal grandfather financed the building of and ran the local mosque in his home town and I was raised to believe that Hindus were snake-worshipping pagans).
I am not saying that background does not matter in any way on the choices one makes when one seeks knowledge, I suspect that as the years pass, more South Asian students will be interested in Indian mysticism than Korean students, and so forth. Race, culture, upbringing, matter, but on an individual level, it is not really that exceptional to transcend one’s own experience and knowledge and seek out that which is different and exotic. While I assert that there is much about our biological makeup that is essential and immutable, culture is clearly predominantly voluntary at the root, no matter that parental values correlate strongly with those of their children. One is not tied to the culture of one’s birth, moored permentantly in the same familiar waters through some law of physics, rather it is more the inertia of happenstance and the comfort of that which is the same. It is a great irony that those very individuals that might assert the malleability of human nature and reject any role for biology are the ones who are ghettoizing the quest for knowledge and forwarding the narrow idea that you should know only what you are and only you can know about yourself.
 In “Authentically Black” McWhorter has a delicious take down of Robinson’s uninformed opinion that black students should learn Swahili rather than French or German. McWhorter responds, rightly, that the West Africans that are the ancestors of most black Americans knew nothing of Swahili and were more likely to hear a European pidgin along the coast then they were Swahili, an East African language. McWhorter then constructively suggests that Wolof is a good candidate if Robinson et al. want to be more authentic. Of course, it is clear that Robinson et al. didn’t do their homework and only want to score anti-Eurocentrics points-not be more authentically “African,” an identity McWhorter reminds readers is mostly American, as Africans are Ibos, Kikiyu and Zulu first and foremost.
Update from Godless:
An old post seems appropriate at this time.
Validity of Studying Black Topics
I want to respond to the second of his three points on McWhorter. In response to my condescending attitude toward black studies, he says:
This is a load of bollocks. Blacks are part of our society, which means that black history is our history, no matter what our ethnicity. That doesn’t mean that we should fall silent before obvious lunacies like Afrocentrism, but at the same time one can no more dismiss a conscientious historian or linguist whose expertise is in the African diaspora than one whose expertise is in French or ancient Greece.
In theory, he is quite correct. The study of the history of Africa or of African Americans is no less defensible than the study of the history of Europe. And truth be told, Ethnic Studies majors and English majors are virtually indistinguishable nowadays in terms of content in the modern university. Virtually every humanities course includes a discussion of “race, gender, and class” from a hopelessly PC perspective. Look at the Stanford course syllabi for yourself if you find this unbelievable.
I suppose, then, that my objection is to the humanities in general – or to what they’ve become. I consider Stanley Fish and Estelle Freedman to be just as bad as Cornel West. The only thing that sets ethnic studies and feminist studies below the rest is that they can cry “racism” or “sexism” whenever they’re under attack by those who know their work to be rubbish. Thus black scholars in African-American studies are held to an even lower standard than Stanley Fish. While postmodernists are open to criticism from the mainstream, ethnic studies professors are simply invulnerable. The Cornel West affair is, obviously, a case in point.
The invulnerability from criticism leads in practice to a complete lack of standards. It is for this reason that ethnic studies – and not just black studies – is worthy of singular disdain.