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February 05, 2005

Polyculturalism - part II

Over at Foreign Dispatches the issue of a broad multicultural education came up, this time in the context of Chinese history. I have discussed the importance of cross-cultural learning before, for example in my post Why a polycultural education?, but I feel like I should elaborate and be more precise.

I discern several primary factors that might influence the construction of a "canon" which the educated castes might share.

Firstly, a common canon generates a universal lexicon. That is, one of the most difficult issues you have when discussing a topic with someone who you are not familiar with, who perhaps you have some foundational ideological disagreemants with, is ironing out semantic confusions. A trivial example is the way we use the term "group selection" on this weblog. A common canon solidifies a semantic and conceptual core that people can draw upon with relatively good expectations that allusions, metaphors and other such verbal flourishes will have their appropriate impact. Imagine for example that two individuals are discussing the possibility of enlightened despotism. If one individual brings up Marcus Aurelius as an exemplar while the other mentions the Duke of Zhou, with foreknowledge of these figures one can gather what the relevance is. But, it is quite likely that someone who casually brings up the Duke of Zhou and someone who cites the example of Marcus Aurelius do not share the same body of knowledge, though both these figures are placeholders for the same general concept in the minds of the respective individuals. This lexical point has an important implication, the content of the canon is not particularly important in and of itself, rather, it simply serves as a lexical buoy which lubricates conversation. The canon conceived in this fashion is less important for its comment on the human condition that its utility in furthering social interaction.

In contrast, there are those who point to the canon as essential for shaping the character of a ruling/administrative class. This was part of the rationale behind the "classical" education that was once in the vogue for the European nobility or the Chinese examination system. The canon imparted moral truths, held great insights for the human condition and set the standards for manners and fashion. One important assumption that undergirds this mindset is that the canon has a strong causal influence on the character of a given society. The Analects are very particular on the issue of filial piety, both The Odyssey and The Ramayana fetishize female fidelity, while the texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition are riddled with parables that seem obviously applicable to daily life. If the relevance of the canon to day-to-day life is transparent and clear in this manner it is also obvious that the choice of the canon matters. If you espouse this view than the relative short shrift on matters of the afterlife that The Analects gives has shaped the Chinese lack of great elaboration on this issue, while the God of the Jews as depicted by their texts has left a great stamp upon his people.

A third point about the canon is that it gives us a window into another culture and allows us to consider differences and commonalities, in fact, this justifies the term polycultural. In this interpretation an appreciation of The Ramayana not only opens up our minds, it gives us a new, perhaps richer, perspective on our own central texts. I believe that the traditional conception of multiculturalism can naively, and most plainly, be thought of as implementing these ends.

But, I simply don't think that modern day multiculturalism is being enacted in this manner. Instead of central texts of non-Western cultures, what is often emphasized is marginalia, the cultural periphery. As illustrative, my personal impression is that a Comparative Literature graduate in the United States might be more able to elaborate upon the plight of lesbians in Kerala in the 1950s than the broad implications of The Ramayana. Similarly, he might be able to relate the details of the tumult in the lives of farmers during the Cultural Revolution but turn up blank on the mention of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Rather than drinking from the deep well of other cultures I believe that the modern day multiculturalist curriculum draws upon superficial works that are easily digestable primarily because they share contemporary concerns and lexicon. Instead of widening horizons there seems to be a reiteration of Central Truths conceived through a narrow prism, confirmatory slices of disparate cultures that reenforce preconceptions.

But there is also another trend, which I think is aimed at the heart of my first point, different ethnic and ideological groups are coalescing around different canons, contingent upon their sociocultural peculiarities. In other words, homosexuals read homosexual writers (of all colors, and ostensibly, cultures), blacks read black authors, radical feminists read radical feminists, Christians read Christian authors (in Christian colleges of course!), and the like. Instead of a common "classical" (whatever that might be) lexicon, each subculture is reshaping its own mental universe with their own self-perceived reflections.

Finally, on the issue of whether a canon is important in shaping a culture, I am skeptical. This should be no surprise, as I have been incredulous about the long-term impact of simple ideas encapsulated in texts before. Instead of Sita shaping how Indian women should behave, I suspect that the norms that were typical (or at least idealized) of Indian women shaped who Sita became in The Ramayana. The lack of theological discussion in The Analects is in my opinion a reflection, not the determinent, of Chinese atheologia. One could say that the Bible has been a seminal influence on Western culture, that its motifs and models have dictated who we are as a people. I am skeptical because the Bible has been used to a) justify slavery b) justify abolition, a) justify the submission of women b) justify equality of women, a) justify monarchy b) justify rule by elected tribunes of the people, and so on. It seems a trivial assertion to say that individuals imbue texts with meanings relevant to their age, after all, humans create texts, texts do not create humans. On a concrete and deep level one can see this in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, as German scholars in the 19th century through hermeneutical techniques began to suspect that there were wide-scale interjections through the text to retrofit the life of Jesus to fulfill the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible (eg; Jesus was born in Bethlehem of the line of David, etc.). The authors who inserted these passages likely thought that were simply adding mistaken omissions, in other words, the reshaping of the text to fit expectations was achieved with an almost naive sincerity.1 I suspect that if China becomes a mostly Christian nation The Analects will either be discarded and considered a curiosity, or reinterpreted in a Christian light just as Plato and Aristotle were often thought of as righteous pagans who had the misfortune of living before the First Coming of the Messiah. Chinese Christians might perceive theological nuance and maxims that presaged Chinese monotheism in the wisdom of Confucius just as Aquinas leveraged the impersonal First Cause of Aristotle to the service of the Christian Trinity.

On the insights that the texts might give us on a substantive level on the human condition, I think that is valid, but I also think that in the generality they don't tell us much on a deep level that is variant. Human universals pervade most canonical texts cross-culturally. Love, hatred, loyalty, rank and war are all explored with texture, nuance and depth. On the other hand, there are plenty of superficial shibboleths which mark the canonical texts apart. The relatively naive polytheism of The Ramayana vs. the monotheism of the Bible and the apatheism of The Analects. To be honest, I think that these differences are much ado about nothing, on a substantive level one can find the same truths expressed in all the works, but, I suspect that believers in the authenticity of the texts as religio-historical works of seminal cultural import might disagree. The fact that the many gods of the Ramayana contradict the account of the monotheistic cosmology matters to many people, just as the relative unconcern with the fate of the eternal soul in Chinese religio-philosophy might be confusing and blasphemous to many Indian and Western thinkers. I think this is a case where superficial markers take on transcendent importance as outgroup-ingroup signifiers. What unites humanity is a banal given, what divides us is an exotic search for variation.

In the end, as a self-professed classical and Chinese history buff with some interest in South Asian history, I tend to rank the points above as follows:


  1. Common lexicon.
  2. Appreciation of cross-cultural universality and difference.
  3. Insights into the human condition and the truth value of the texts.

What I see in the modern multicultural education is a mismash of various needs, wants and priorities that tends to correlate with a particular ideological orientation, the illiberal identity politics politics of grievance and difference. Because the United States is by origin a Western nation with a Christian majority I personally have little problem with emphasizing a centrality of the works of the Western tradition (note my ranking above). For those who are broadly educated I think it is crucial that there is some familarity with the central texts of other cultures. Though I think that there should obviously be some personal choice, I am suspicious of too much flexibility which begins to intellectually Balkanize students and accentuates differences (or as I would prefer to term them, shibboleths).

Addendum: I use the term "texts" in a broad sense. A transcription of Taiwanese aboriginal oral mythology would serve as a fine grounding for a common lexicon, because I suspect it would encapsulate the same Human Universals.

1 - I am not particularly concerned with issues of Biblical interpretation here, I simply offer this as a possible example where cultural expectations can reshape a text rather quickly. It is not relevant whether the German scholars were correct or not on this count.

Posted by razib at 03:16 PM