The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. The fields of politics, economics, ethics, and philosophy are littered with the tragic results of those who acted from "the best of motives." While examples of the "law of unintended consequences" can be found in any area of human endeavor, a current movement within the field of education provides a prime example of what happens when people attempt to achieve positive results with self-destructive means.
Educational curricula across the country are being restructured in attempts to make them more "culturally sensitive" and to "correct" the biases which were "created" by reliance upon Western literature and culture on the part of our country's teachers. This focus upon the intellectual heritage of Greece and Rome in ancient history and upon that of Europe during the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution is supposedly the result of either a conscious or unconscious racism. Teaching and discussing the works of Aristotle or Rembrandt, of Beethoven or Locke are apparently little more than means for "the white, male power structure" to maintain its political dominance and oppression of "women and people of color."
Not only is Western culture vilified as a tool of power hungry politicians, it is criticized because its teaching instills a sense of inferiority and low self-esteem in those who do not fit the male, WASP image. In order to correct these and other reputed ills, many educational leaders in this country advocate either an abolition of "Western Civilization" requirements or, at a minimum, an "equal time" policy in which other cultures are granted equivalent (or, sometimes, superior) status with that of the West.
These are serious charges which need to be carefully considered. To fully examine all the issues involved and to place them in the wider context of philosophy, knowledge, and ethics, however, would require far more space than is available here. (For example, the very definition of "racism" is in dispute. Some maintain it is possible only to those in a position of political power who use their resources to oppress people of other races or ethnic backgrounds. "Racism," though, is practiced any time people formulate their judgments regarding the worth, character, or value of a person, thing, or idea on the basis of race.) Still, a few of the more essential principles can be sketched in here.
As mentioned earlier, one of the stated intentions of those who are pushing for a diminished emphasis on Western culture in education is to counteract a perceived racism. These individuals think that non-white students must experience discomfort and psychological injury when they are forced to study works that were produced by those of a different racial background. Only by presenting equal numbers of literary and artistic examples produced by Orientals, Africans, or Hispanics will such minority students escape a sense of stigmatization and cultural deprivation.
Unfortunately, such positive ends can never be achieved by the means proposed by these reformers. In an intellectual error remarkably similar to that of advocates of "affirmative action" (who believe we can create a non-racist society by making people increasingly race conscious), the opponents of Western culture believe it is possible to erase racist and sexist biases in education by insisting that the fundamental cause and source of culture is one of race or national origin. While such people are free to believe whatever they wish, they will never achieve their stated goals by denigrating and destroying the best hope we have for counteracting the forces of racism.
Culture and civilization are the result of ideas, and ideas and the actions which people take based upon them must be judged on their own merits and not upon a kind of ad hominem attack which discredits an idea or culture or civilization on the irrelevant criteria of race or nationality. To diminish the value of Western culture because its greatest contributions to date have come from white males of European descent is to commit the same logical error as the Ku Klux Klanner who believes that Blacks and anything which they produce are naturally inferior; is to commit the same kind of mistake as the Nazis who condemned "Jewish civilization" and all that was connected with it.
But the race, sex, national origin, ethnic background, hair color, height, weight, or preference for chocolate ice cream of someone who advances an idea, paints a portrait, or writes a novel has no relevance whatsoever as to the value of that idea, portrait, or book. And since a culture and civilization is nothing more than the total contributions of individual ideas, writings, or whatever, it is just as erroneous to judge any culture on the basis of such false criteria.
Here, however, we come to another reason why the educational reformers in question have such difficulty in seeing how this basic principle of critical thinking applies to their case. Rather than looking first at an individual's characteristics and his free-will choices and actions in forming an opinion as to that person's value, the anti-Western forces look initially at some group to which the individual belongs and seek there for the primary causal factor in determining what that person is worth. This collectivistic attitude (and racism is simply a type of collectivism) runs counter to the Western individualist tradition. It simply reinforces the notion that the individual person is not the primary unit in a society; that people should not be evaluated according to what they have done, said, or believed (that is, according to criteria under their control) but according to the group -- whether race, tribe, nation, class, or family -- to which they belong (which is nothing more than an accident of birth).
In evaluating cultures, it is necessary to look to objective standards and to the requirements of human life to determine which is superior to which. It is only Western culture which is founded upon the idea of individualism; a dedication to reason and the possibility of objective knowledge; a belief in freedom and the subordination of the state to its citizens; a pride in productivity and ingenuity; and a rejoicing in the heroic potential inherent in humankind. It is, perhaps, not surprising that those who assail the values of individualism, objectivity, and freedom -- those who are either openly or implicitly sympathetic to collectivism, subjectivism, and the paternalistic state -- should resent and feel threatened by the very forces which have created the society in which they dwell. It is not surprising...but it is sad.
Those who deny the paramount value of Western ideas and civilization and seek to supplant them with the primitive, the irrational, and the controlled possess the most honorable of intentions. Yet still they are engaged in a course of action which can succeed only in fostering an increase in the ignorance, racial intolerance, and crippled self-esteem which they declare they seek to eradicate. Accepted or not, they are responsible for even the unintended consequences of the actions which they advocate and perform. When the negative results of their course of action become evident -- as they have for the leaders of the communist world; for the proponents of affirmative action; for the advocates of the welfare state -- they can (and probably will) seek scapegoats to blame and then try yet again to rebuild an educational system which rests on faulty foundations. But the goal of better educated citizens capable of functioning happily in a modern society in which each individual has the best opportunity for personal fulfillment will never become a reality until the reformers realize that what first needs to be reformed are their own ideas.