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Academic mindset mocks today's multiculturalism
Rejecting Westernism

by Cathy Young

One issue likely to follow us into the next millennium is the debate over multiculturalism in education. The trouble is, no one seems to know what multiculturalism is - not even its own proponents.

   In 1996, administrators at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst decided to ask faculty members to explain in their evaluation forms, used to determine promotions, what "significant contributions to multiculturalism" they made. When one dissenting professor, Daphne Patai, asked some of her colleagues what multiculturalism meant, they were stumped. One ventured that it had something to do with championing the oppressed.

   "Multiculturalism and the Future of Higher Education" was the topic of a three-day conference held in December by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). The 10-year-old NAS has a conservative image. A representative of the "other side," University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson, accused it of fostering "a cartoon version of multiculturalism" - anti-Western, anti-Great Books - that doesn't exist. In reality, he argued, multiculturalism is about teaching humanity's cultural heritage in all its diversity.

   But none of the "conservative" speakers at the conference objected to multiculturalism so defined, and several explicitly praised it.

   The academic left refers to the Western tradition as the "monoculture." Yet the real monoculture, said Clifford Orwin, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, is the "post-Western" culture of the university with its political orthodoxy. The serious study of non-Western civilizations could "create a greater distance from the monoculture" - helping students appreciate the uniqueness of the West but also giving them insights into how "the questions we hold so dear have been addressed in other cultures."

   Of course, serious study, Orwin added, is just what the academic monoculture discourages. Instead of actually learning about other cultures, we're expected to proclaim that all cultures are equal and leave it at that.

   University of Virginia English professor Paul Cantor spoke of the truly multicultural works of post-colonial Third World writers like Salman Rushdie or Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, in which Western and non-Western cultures meet and interact. Yet many "multicultural" and "post-colonialist" critics reject these writers because they refuse to demonize the West or romanticize the Third World.

   Daniel Bonevac, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, also contrasted "pluralistic" multiculturalism that seeks to enrich our knowledge by widening the scope of the intellectual traditions we study, and the "politicized" variety that subordinates scholarship to ideology. The data he presented from an index to philosophical publications leaves no doubt as to which brand is in vogue. Since 1987, the number of articles on non-Western (Indian, Chinese, Buddhist) philosophy have gone up by about a third - but articles on feminism and gender have quadrupled.

   Often, what passes for multiculturalism today narrows people's horizons rather than widen them. Many students, said Emory University historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have absorbed the notion that ideas not related to "their personal experience or identity" are irrelevant if not detrimental to their self-esteem. Black students, noted Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, "are not taught to make the Western experience their own, but only to reject it."

   Is this, as Cary Nelson asserts, a caricature? I doubt it. In the Dec. 22 issue of the Nation, Michael Berube, with whom Nelson co-wrote a book on the political wars in the academy, writes about the 1994 controversy surrounding the national history standards. I agree that some attacks on the standards were unfair. But Berube gives himself away when he sneers at Fox-Genovese's charge that the standards failed to recognize that the concept of individual freedom originated in the Western tradition.

   Fox-Genovese was stating a simple and important fact. Yet Berube accuses her of wanting to replace history with "cheerleading" and draws a parallel to a passage in a 1874 textbook celebrating the achievements of the "Aryan" race.

   This mentality doesn't need to be caricatured. It is a caricature of cultural pluralism.


Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network. Her column is published on Wednesday. Write to her at The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226 or fax to (313) 222-6417 or send an email message to

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