A Donkey At Berkeley

[a speech originally given at the University of Texas]

What is an appropriate curriculum for our students? What happened to the consensus on which the college curriculum once rested? Together these comprise two of the most urgent questions in contemporary American higher education. It seems to me that the criticisms of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind of a decade ago are symptomatic of the problems we are facing. High standards are described as elitism, a pejorative of scathing proportions. A call for the assertion of Western traditions is characterized as racist and anti-democratic. And Bloom’s critique of radical feminism as a virus let loose on the curriculum is greeted with cries of “phallocentrism.”

The college curriculum as the source of youthful enlightenment free of the impediments of bias and prejudice has unraveled. While Stanley Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, recently noted that “scholars are less politicized in the United States than in any country in the developed world,” he neglected to point out that a profound and revolutionary change has occurred on American campuses since the 1960’s, resulting in the institutionalization of a radical agenda.

For a generation students have been fed on the “studies” curriculum, whether it is women’s studies, gay studies, environmental studies, peace studies, Chicano studies that are designed to indoctrinate students about pathologies in contemporary American culture – specifically race, class, gender, and environmental oppression.


Moreover, philosopher Richard Rorty argued that secular professors in the universities ought “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” Rorty noted that students are fortunate to find themselves under the control “of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.” Indeed, parents who send their children to college should recognize that as professors “we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.”

Even if one agrees with Dr. Katz, or considers my description somewhat exaggerated, there are certain assumptions about higher education that are likely to be accepted: one is that some matters should be studied by all students, and another is that the welfare of society depends on some knowledge and appreciation of the basic ideas that undergird this democratic polity. These generalizations, in themselves rarely cause a heated reaction, but their application in a society as diverse and perhaps as atomistic as ours makes them intrinsically volatile.

William Bennett in Our Children and Our Country noted that there is no longer an overarching, well-understood purpose for the university. In the past – some distant, imprecise past – all activities were ancillary to teaching, including research and publication. Today, however, the university’s purpose is manifold: research, administration, publication, affirmative action, redressing real and perceived social ills, therapy for middle class kids suffering the ravages of divorce and neglect, ideological indoctrination (what I have called in another context “the Derridaization of the curriculum”), and occasionally teaching. The honored disciplines are still taught and some are less contaminated by the political virus than others, but along with them is a heavy overlay of deconstruction, Lacanism, Marxism, semiotics, minimalism, hermeneutics of everything except the Bible, self-studies, ethnic studies, and theory – theory about every matter to which a theory can be applied.
As I see it, education is the ability to make sense of the chaotic world of entropy (the second law of thermodynamics) through the prism of eternal truths filtered down through the past. But if there isn’t truth, all views will appear as relative and essentially nonsensical.

Let me illustrate this point with a Hasidic tale recounted by Martin Buber. The story involves the consuming desire of Reb Yitzak Yaakov of Poland to encounter the prophet Elijah. Elijah, according to the Bible did not die. He was carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot, and ever since, Jewish tradition has it, he has regularly been sent on various missions throughout the world, under disguise, to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

To satisfy his desire, Reb Yitzak Yaakov would dress himself in peasant’s garb, and with a companion wander through the streets and markets of neighboring villages hoping by chance or by G-d’s grace to meet the prophet Elijah.

One day as they were walking down a typically unpaved and sandy street, they met a peasant walking towards them leading a donkey on a halter. Yitzak grabbed his companion’s arm in deep agitation: “There he is!” he cried.

But the peasant glared at him with fiery eyes: “Yehudi!” he thundered (Yehudi means Jew), “Yehudi, if you know, why must you speak?” And in an instant Eijah disappeared.

Now, as I see it, the encounter with Elijah in this tale conveyed the assurance so ardently desired by Yitzak that a divine purpose exists. It was a dazzling sign that there is a latent meaning and a body of principles governing the world, which to many seems devoid of both.
But why, one may well ask – although Buber does not – was Elijah angry? Why did he disappear as soon as he was identified? And, to ask a third question, which on first blush may seem frivolous, what happened to the donkey?

I shall return to these questions in due course, but first I would like to ask why the curriculum consensus on our campuses has unraveled? Some might be tempted to argue that this situation is a reflection of the disorder of our times, in which false and perverse notions are employed in order to enhance faculty authority and preferences. Others argue that the curriculum has been undone by a process of academic logrolling among the established disciplines, unfettered by any transcendent idea of the good or even the desirable. Still another view is that the instability of the curriculum reflects a desire to keep up with the shifting tides of intellectual fashion.

Clearly, it would be unwise to argue that the curriculum should be narrowly sectarian. I’m reminded of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s response to a French ambassador who earnestly spoke of friendly relations between the two countries. Qaddafi nodded then said, “It would be so much easier if the French were to convert to Islam.” As professors we are constrained by the reality of cultural, religious, and ethnic differences which make an inflexible curriculum improbable. But that in no way obviates the need for a common core that transmits the deposited wisdom of our civilization, and poses the essential questions of life – How should I live? What is the good life? What can I hope for? What must I do? How do I find the truth? – or that provides students with knowledge about the democratic polity of which they are citizens.

Though we are all living in a durably enigmatic universe and following paths through life which lead each one of us to his death, we all want, or should want, to know what we are doing here and what we must do to give our lives value and overcome the apparent derision of death, which threatens to deprive all our efforts and accomplishments of any lasting significance. Higher education in itself, cannot address this yearning. At its best it refines the questions and establishes a path for the pursuit of answers. Yet my concern is that the typical college curriculum does not ask the important questions, does not encourage the quest for real self and community knowledge, and substitutes the wisdom on which this civilization was founded for that which has current and evanescent meaning.

It is ironic that at the moment we have eviscerated meaning from the curriculum, academics are urgently calling for “values education.” A recurrent phrase in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. But what is this values education to be? The emergence of cultural relativism has elicited the belief that our culture is one of many others deserving no particular praise or even attention. As the web of symbols, which in every culture designates the ultimate values from which moral rules are derived, is subject to rational exegesis and then refutation, a vacuum results which most high-minded scholars don’t have the foggiest idea of how to fill. Moreover, the scientific world view on which scholarly discourse depends provides only one – and by no means the most important – dimension of values.

This leaves us in a double bind. The call for values in the curriculum occurs in a social setting characterized by accelerated change, a scientific world view, a skepticism towards religion, a fascination with that which is fashionable, and the emergence of a peculiar orthodoxy which relies on relativism, except when it comes to women, blacks and the Third World. One cannot bring back the past, despite my wish. But neither can one forget the past. While there are many ways to pursue curriculum reform and many viewpoints on any direction taken, I would argue that the way toward the reassertion of common sense involves a renewed consideration of those that deal with our fundamental humanity.

Rejecting the compromise of standards that has afflicted higher education since the 1960’s, we should carry the torch – like a government in exile – for the highest value, that which is irrefutably common to all students: the desire to question and to know. In that sense, we are all like Reb Yitzak Yaakov wandering through the streets in search of a presence that will confirm our faith and our humanity, that will certify we are not adrift in an inhuman and meaningless universe, headed for a meaningless death. This is the common bond we share, and it is upon this search that the curriculum must be constructed.

This brings me to another of my questions from the allegorical tale: Why was Elijah angry? He was angry, I contend, because while people may be allowed to sense his presence, they cannot presume to point it out and give it a name. The time was not yet ripe for revelation because in the Jewish tradition the Messiah had not come and preparation for his coming made everything precarious. Hence, one should not designate this hidden force, nor utter the name of G-d capriciously. Elijah disappeared because he was designated and named. Yitzak said aloud what should have been left unspoken and acknowledged only in the heart.

If I may apply Yitzak’s dilemma to the academy, the highest value is potentially ripened within the walls of our colleges. The nostalgic need often expressed for a “human world” will find its expression only in the quest for what is most authentically human. That is not a quest limited to the last two decades, or even the last two centuries; it is a search for answers to those universal questions that transcend the latest cause or “ism” and go right to the essence of being human.
The nineteenth-century Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, faced with the crude demand for a “truth,” saved his neck by replying that “man is not yet ripe – he is a priest without knowing it.” What I think he meant by that phrase is that, like Yitzak, each of us is a questioner, a mediator between the highest value and the banality of quotidian responsibility, between a world that is dreadfully predictable and a future charged with possibilities. Those are the real parameters of curriculum decisions; not whether the voices of femininity, color, or the Third World will be represented in a reading list, but whether those readings and questions bring us closer to the true source of our humanity.

Now, for the last of my questions: What happened to the donkey that Elijah was leading down the dusty village street? I suspect – since I don’t have this from a higher authority I will share my suspicion – that when the prophet disappeared the donkey ambled down the street and stopped at the water fountain. There he was picked up by a man who had witnessed the encounter and knew the donkey belonged to the prophet Elijah. Realizing the animal was granted special powers, he was sent to the United States where he was given an endowed chair in semiotics at the University of California at Berkeley.

While Elijah in my story is the searing unrelenting, illuminating questioner, the donkey is no more that a precocious and false answer. One might say the donkey is the Golden Calf – a firm answer to a question that requires no answering. Like so many subjects in the contemporary curriculum, there are questions that don’t deserve our attention. For example: Can peace be established through the elimination of nuclear weapons? Is race the only way to evaluate societies? Should hermeneutics be reduced to gender? I can obviously go on. The essence of the curriculum is desire: the desire to go beyond oneself and to ask the questions that cut across time and place. The extent to which scholars can revisit the issue of the curriculum with this desire in mind is the test of whether true educational attainment is being encouraged. I am not sanguine about the prospects, but like my belief in Elijah, some matters are better left unsaid and faith is still the great harbinger of change.

Harold Hodgkinson, former director of the National Institute of Education, wrote that, “The American public school curriculum is quintessentially European in nature, from the language it teaches to the music sung by its choirs. Although it is more relevant to blacks than in the past, there is still much to work on, and as to the curriculum as it is learned by all the Asians and the South Americans and Islanders, we are truly flying blind” (italics in original).
Here in rather unvarnished form is the view that the school curriculum must be responsive to a novel set ambient conditions summarized most often in the phrase the “new demographics.” Presumably, the growing number of students of African, Asia, Caribbean, and Hispanic origin in our schools has rendered the pedagogical assumptions of the past obsolete, and necessitate a wholly new approach, based on diversity, multiculturalism, and “relevant” materials.

Admittedly, the United States is an integral part of an increasingly global civilization, and our schools will per force be spending more class time than has hitherto been the case on the histories, politics, cultures, and economics of the non-western parts of the world. Yet the essential character of American culture remains Western, as is most manifest in its steadfast denial of the importance of ancestry, and its emphasis instead on universal values such as individual freedom and social justice. To the extent we agree on the importance of preserving these ideals there is obviously a need for a canon to ensure acculturation, one that includes the Magna Carta, the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, the works of Shakespeare, Franklin, Jefferson, et al. Indeed, if the principles of ethnic, racial, and religious tolerance are to be perpetuated in America, the provenance of individual rights and dignity, a belief in justice for all, and a faith in the rule of law must be imbibed.

Of course, our educational system should not be indifferent to the varied ethnic roots of the American people. Americans have long understood that “hyphenated loyalty,” coupling a fondness of the “old country” with an aspiration toward eventual assimilation, represents a feasible and satisfying compromise between what otherwise might be considered warring psychological forces. What is wrong-headed and patronizing, however, is to argue that black Americans, to use one illustration, have a special need for an African-centered curriculum. Certainly, if a major curriculum goal is to explore the case for constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, John Stuart Mill, a white Western male, speaks far more eloquently that Malcolm X or Franz Fanon. Moreover, it hardly bodes well for the future to assign to those students only views consistent with ethnic loyalty. These may be relevant in some superficial sense, but in the long term an excessive dose of such readings will handicap them as assuredly as will a lack of familiarity with arithmetic.

It was recently reported that several Oregon schools, for example, are adopting the Mexican public school curriculum to help educate Spanish speaking students with textbooks provided by the Mexican government in math, science and even U.S. history.

It is instructive that several black organizations argued a few years ago that the Scholastic Aptitude Test was discriminatory. Cited as evidence for this claim was a verbal analogies question in which the correct answer was the word “regatta.” It was alleged by some black leaders that since blacks are often disadvantaged and culturally insulated, they could not possibly know what a regatta is. Yet at about the same time these allegations were being made, a young emigre form Cambodia, who had been in this country only three years, won the National Spelling Bee with the word “daiquiri.” What makes this illustration poignant is that this Cambodian girl had entered the United States without knowledge of the English language or American customs, and certainly without any familiarity with our national drinks. Presumably what she did have, however, was a strong desire to master the ways of her new homeland.

If the new demographics suggest anything at all about the future course of American education, it is the need to reemphasize our traditional ideals of high achievement and preparation for common citizenship. This will not only preserve an American environment in which all can work and share in a spirit of brotherhood, but will also provide us with a frame of reference that will give legitimate meaning to the study of other societies. Moreover, our reasons for studying other societies are not primarily to be found in the changing mix of ancestral backgrounds that characterizes the national student body. Our interest in the experience of other peoples derives instead from a concern with the fundamental questions that affect all human beings: Who are we? How can we find enduring satisfaction in our lives? What are our responsibilities to other individuals and succeeding generations? How do we wish to be governed? What is the larger shape of the universe in which we live?

Curiously the curriculum that is most effective for minorities and others, for females and males, for the poor and the rich, is one that encourages reasoned reflection about these commonalities of the human condition, that offers the best that is known and written and provides some knowledge of the deposited wisdom of civilization. To deny the veracity of this claim by assigning marginal works is to handicap greatly the very students who so desperately need our best academic counsel.

“Moreover, it hardly bodes well for the future to assign to those students only views consistent with ethnic loyalty.”

Herb London

Herb London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.

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