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Dead White Men: Alive and Well

I think Phoebe goes a little soft on David Brooks' assertion that we have "a generation of students who are educated in a way that doesn't bring them into contact with the European canon, the old 'best that has been thought and said.'" One hears a lot of this sort of thing from conservatives, and I wonder if they read any syllabi. I had a fair number of hardcore lefties as professors at one time or another, but assume you count English people as Europeans, I believe I took a grand total of four classes that didn't feature at least one reading by a European author. One was a physics class, one was on American social policy, one was a class on American literature, and one was about the history of Japan. This idea that the traditional western canon has vanished from the educational system is absurd. I took one class on a non-western subject (along with two science classes and several philosophy classes that had no discernable cultural 'location'), the minimum I was allowed to get away with, which I think was fairly typical behavior. It hardly would have killed me to have taken two or even three.

UPDATE: Which is all to say who, exactly, does Brooks think I've been missing out on? Tragically, there are many more books worth reading than actual time to read them, but I think I've done pretty well on the whole. If I'd actually followed orders and read Democracy in America I'd be in better shape Great Brooks-wise, but I did read his book about France.

April 10, 2005 | Permalink


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Matthew Yglesias points out that David Brooks simply doesn't know what he's talking about--that all the dead white European men are very much alive and very well: Matthew Yglesias: Dead White Men: Alive and Well: David Brooks' assert[s] that we have 'a... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 11, 2005 4:50:53 PM


The real problem is that we have a generation of pundits who opine in a way that doesn't bring them into contact with reality.

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Apr 10, 2005 11:16:59 PM

All pundits making this point should be required to write at least a paragraph on their top 20 books in the canon.

Posted by: Atrios | Apr 10, 2005 11:25:45 PM

I buy that what's on an undergrad science syllabus probably isn't really culturally located. But philosophy? What philosophy is there that isn't culturally located?

Posted by: Scott E. | Apr 10, 2005 11:33:39 PM

David Brooks has a book about France?

Posted by: Kieran | Apr 10, 2005 11:59:17 PM

David Brooks has a book about France?

Yes, it begins, "All Gaul is divided into two parts..."

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Apr 11, 2005 12:00:54 AM

Those authors are now read becuase they have become influential; others are excluded not becuase they are not Western but because they are not as influential (due to differneces in literate population and locus of education).

so as more non-Western books are read, they will become more important.

Education in the WEst is no longer Western to the exclusion of other good books, but only Western becuase of the history of wEstern influence. Thus it will inevitably decline into some Globalised, cosmopolitan mish-mash.

Posted by: yoyo | Apr 11, 2005 12:02:15 AM

I have yet again been tricked into reading a David Brooks column. Damn you.

On the other hand, I think his primary claim is, "Today's writers and artists are much less likely to be Americanizing European stuff, and a way of writing and thinking is dying." This doesn't seem to me to be nearly as absurd as the point you quote above, and in fact is quite likely correct. It also seems easily explicable by American primacy on the world stage, and the fact that right now so many books/movies/ television shows/ what have you are being produced right now that it takes an absurd amount of time to keep up with things being written in English.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 11, 2005 12:20:18 AM

This is one of those critiques I constantly heard from conservatives on campus in undergrad, and my reaction was also similar to Matt's. I think the Conservative Pundit Class is upset that there are disciplines that are not structured towards solely studying Western European Thought and its support for Conservatism. It was always odd when Conservatives critiqued majors like Anthropology because it was insufficiently Western focused, despite being developed largely by Westerners. However, it REALLY got wierd when you would read opeds about how foreign students in the U.S. shouldn't study science and engineering, but rather should all be dedicated to studying Aquinas, etc.

As near as I can tell, the Conservative Pundit Class decided to hate Science a long time ago, possibly because Science consists of repeatedly running experiments, developing a body of data, gaining an expertise in a relatively narrow field and then developing models and theories to explain and predict what's going on. That's a LOT more work than simply applying a ready-made ideological test to every situation.

In a wierd twist on that subject, Jonah Goldberg once came to campus and gave a speech about how the Left now hates scientists. One student asked every liberal/leftist in the audience pursuing a science degree to stand up, and about 10% of the audience did. Then he asked all the Conservatives pursuing a science degree to stand up, and 1 person did. He then asked Jonah if this had any impact on his thoughts on the matter, and Jonah's response was that he wasn't being intellectually rigorous because he wasn't basing his argument on an intellectual theory (apparently, science means something other than collecting data sets and testing assertions by comparing them to available data).

Posted by: MDtoMN | Apr 11, 2005 12:23:55 AM

Two more points: I made the above comment before finishing Brooks's column, he pretty much says what I did, except for his bizarre point about being out of touch with the European classics. But it does seem to me that we are out of touch with current European trends in the novel.

Inconsistent point: I just remembered that I have sitting on my desk, and have been meaning to start, a New York Times Bestseller which was translated from Spanish.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 11, 2005 12:25:22 AM

Shit, I was asked to read Democracy in America and Moore's Utopia a grand total of 9 times while I was at Harvard.

Matt is ahead of me hear since my history requirement was fulfilled reading democratic theory in Europe, my literature requirement the 19th century English novel, my "foreign cultures" requirement with Greek conceptions of identity through Alexander the Great, and my science requirement studying the expanding universe that is done mostly by....Americans.

I am not sure I read anybody (on any syllabus) my entire time at Harvard that wasn't Western European, Hellenistic, or North American.

Posted by: Patrick | Apr 11, 2005 1:44:41 AM

Would it silence these guys if we brought back instruction in Latin?

Posted by: modus potus | Apr 11, 2005 1:59:54 AM

These guys are impervious to reality. I went to the University of Chicago, where students are utterly drowned in dead Greeks, Englishmen, etc. And yet Allen Bloom, who was a professor there when I was there, wrote The Closing of the American Mind, in which he asserted that students weren't being exposed to those writers anymore. This was all back in the 1970's. Some things never change.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Apr 11, 2005 2:56:20 AM

Rebecca Allen's right. We're still all drowning in dead Greeks, Englishmen, etc.

I think the main motivation of Brooks, Goldberg, and his ilk is not so much to say, "hey, we need to read more of the classics," as much as to say, "look how ignorant the seething masses are! No wonder they can't be trusted to support Social Security privatization, or be told the truth about our motivations for our policies!"

I think you saw a lot of the same thing from Democrats who cited the PIPA studies on Republican beliefs: "No WONDER we lost the election! Look how ignorant Republicans are!"

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 11, 2005 4:53:20 AM

These comments are hilarious! I don't normally agree w/much that Brooks has to say, but this column was actually a good one--spot on.

Patrick: It's More, and don't they teach spelling at Harvard? Maybe they just don't grade for it & so it doesn't matter?

Matt was referring to Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and French Revolution," a good book if you're curious. Brooks! You might also try some Burke, or even Wordsworth's "Prelude" (which should be required reading for all lefties over thirty-five).

Meantime, I think it's substantially true that a) people in their free time don't read nearly as much serious literature as they did in the day that produced quarrelsome cafeteria talkers Bellow spoke to (and of) and b) that university curricula, while not devoid of dead white men, are bereft of what used to be considered essential reading. It's entirely possible to get through an undergraduate education and never have read Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Milton, Bacon, Goethe--elementary and junior high school reading a mere century ago--and the list goes on. I once asked an instructor of mine why there were no books assigned to our course written prior to 1950 and she said, "Because I couldn't get the students to read them."

Honestly, I don't know the full genesis of this disaster, but I do know that big and small 'L' liberals should be more concerned than the so-called conservatives: they've always had guns and money on their side--all we've had, ever, is humany sympathy and truth: if we lose the complex visions of those (admittedly provisional and slippery) truths handed down to us (from Euripides' Trojan War and Milton's Aeropagitica to Rawls' Law of Peoples), we're screwed.

Posted by: joel turnipseed | Apr 11, 2005 5:28:53 AM

I'd like to know which bits of the 'European canon' that Brooks has actually read. Or rather, make him play the David Lodge 'Humiliation' game.

Too often, those who bemoan the decline of the canon are also those who get their knowledge of canonical works from, say, Christopher Hitchens' Atlantic reviews (or 'wonderful essay[s] for The Wilson Quarterly').

Posted by: ahem | Apr 11, 2005 5:54:15 AM

It's entirely possible to get through an undergraduate education and never have read Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Milton, Bacon, Goethe--elementary and junior high school reading a mere century ago--and the list goes on.

Of course, it was entirely possible to get through an undergraduate education in 1905 and never be taught basic genetics, the fundamentals of atomic physics, etc. Those dumb-ass Edwardians.

Btw, could you please come up with evidence of elementary or junior high schools teaching Faust and Novum Organum in the early 1900s? Otherwise I may have to call bullshit on that. Granted, passages from the authors you mention will have been offered up as translation and comprehension exercises, but they damn well weren't read.

Posted by: ahem | Apr 11, 2005 6:09:17 AM

I have two points to make, not very well, since it's too early in the morning. One is about classics, the other about innumeracy.

To Joel Turnipseed and others who think like him, there' a danger of exaggeration and misunderstanding what kind of students we're talking about. I love my classics, but give me a break - Goethe was never elementary school reading. Even in German (I'm bilingual from birth) it's a hard read. While you say people over 35 should read X, let's all just go ahead and admit that nobody under the age of 25 should read Moby Dick. It's a beautiful meditation on life and obsession, but did you really understand it at age 17, when they foisted it on you in high school? Have you bothered to read it since?

I could talk about classics, about the multiple book clubs that exist in my neighborhood (which read modern literature and ... classics), about the general culture of reading that exists in this country (among a certain class of people, one must admit), but I won't. I'll let others argue those points.

All this talk about classics is BS, anyway, because it hides a far larger problem. It's possible to get through college at most schools (good ones!) with absolutely no effective knowledge of mathematics and no insight into science. Matt - one science class to graduate, are you kidding? Innumeracy and scientific illiteracy are far larger problems than not having read Homer or Goethe. I'm a scientist, and the pure freaking ignorance that most people have of basic scientific knowledge is a crime. It's not just evolutionary theory (about which there is simply no debate, just conversations about refinement), but the laws of thermodynamics, or issues of efficiency (when discussing solar power or wind farms, for example), or an understanding of what physics does and does not claim. On the mathematical side, people are unable to read mathematics, understand graphs, or realize the ways in which statistics are used. Based on past experience, I'd guess that some of the commenters above fall into the haughty humanist category, caring about the classics while being funtionally innumerate and scientifically ignorant. It's a shame that that's been my experience.

Meaning, I don't give a flip about whether people know the classics or not, I can reserve that for those who have the time to investigate them. I do care, deeply, that we live in a society where science and math "are hard" or you can say "I hated physics" and people will nod. You know what? I hate some classics, I find them boring and silly, totally useless for my understanding of the world. I've studied them, anyway. Some are sublime. But a liberal arts education, both the trivium and the quadrivium, refers to an open, liberated mind, and I can get that from a lot of sources.

Posted by: rothko | Apr 11, 2005 6:26:24 AM

Anybody who read Brooks instead of de Toqueville got swindled. In fact, anybody who reads Brooks swindles themselves.

I mean, really- the party that doesn't believe in the separation of the powers is going to lecture us about understanding great thinkers of the past? I don't think so.

If you're a reader you'll read on your own. For a class of women's studies I used War and Peace to write a term paper. For a nursing class on aging I used the works of the original Thomas Wolfe. A good time was had by all.

So, when it comes to Brooks, just heed my mother's advice- "Don't read that trash! Read something good!"

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 11, 2005 8:14:42 AM

Huzzah, rothko: another vote for liberal arts. The underlying problem here, really, is that the gap between even fairly good elementary preparation and the fundamentals now needed for intelligent, informed citizenship is too vast to be met in four years. While a part of this is due to poor preparation, a lot of it is due to the expansion of critical knowledge.

Or, shorter version: I care that people know both literature (though classics might not be essential, they are fun), science, and statistics.

Posted by: tinman | Apr 11, 2005 8:18:13 AM

Well, high school literature curricula are terrible and I, for one, would welcome a return to more western canon type of stuff and away from Annie John, The Joy Luck Club, and the like.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 11, 2005 9:19:25 AM

Skip Democracy in America. Tocqueville made it all up anyway.

Posted by: David in NY | Apr 11, 2005 9:28:03 AM

Your Physics class didn't include European authors? I find that hard to believe. What on earth did you study?

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 11, 2005 9:39:01 AM

Orwell (do I get positive plus points for evoking Orwell?) complained in one of his autobiographical essays on English education that the humanities was all he was taught - to the exclusion of science and the rest of modern reality. It probably made him a better writer and speller. I would expect Republicans would show a bit more pride in America's more Pragmatic approach to education, especially since our current efforts are a response to the science competion we had going with the Soviet Union, the engineering competition we had going with Japan and the math competition we have going with everybody. I hardly know what their objection is but I suspect they object to having to read things written by black people.

Posted by: LowLife | Apr 11, 2005 9:41:25 AM

For your information, Joel, they don't teach spelling at Harvard. They do teach arrogant assholery like correcting someone's spelling in a blog comment. Well, that's more Princeton than Harvard, but still...

But I second Lowlife: part of this "return to the canon" movement is an objection to reading stuff by women and minorities because, as Joel seems to imply, we can't learn truths about international relations and justice from anyone other than Greeks and Englishmen (And please, how many people would include Rawls's Law of Peoples in the Canon? Zero, and that's coming from someone who thinks it brilliant and wrote his thesis on the damn thing.)

Posted by: Patrick | Apr 11, 2005 9:56:33 AM

The simpler explanation seems to be that Brooks is simply making shit up. That explanation is falsifiable, in the best empirical tradition, and it's clear and parsimonious. Why not accept it?

Posted by: Doug | Apr 11, 2005 10:01:07 AM

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