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 Student Essay   (click here for information about submitting a Student Essay)

Great Books, Bad Politics


The classics of Western literature were once center to the undergraduate learning experience. Thanks to political correctness, this is no longer so. The result is intellectual impoverishment and a diminished

quality of undergraduate life.

Previously published in the February 4th 1998 edition of U of T's student publication "the newspaper".


J.N. Hrab

 Author Notes

3rd year student, University of Toronto

 Essay - 3/8/1998

There was a time when all liberal arts students pursued a strict program of study where they sampled the classics of Western civilization. If we were studying 100 years ago, we would be trying to make sense of writers like Homer, Nietzche, Gibbon, Kant, Montaigne, and Plutarch. We would read and debate these works under the assumption that, despite the passage of time, they had something to say to us, that they represented the product of fine minds wrestling with eternal questions. They were worth knowing--or at least that is what some people believed.

Nowadays, it is (among the very top universities in North America) only Colombia U. that prescribes such a course of study for its undergrads, who must complete a two year "Great Books" program. Smaller liberal arts colleges are trying to keep this tradition alive, but their valiant efforts unfortunately have remained mostly off the media's radar screen and therefore largely unknown. Western civilization, once a mandatory topic of study, is now just another elective.

What has registered on the radar screens of all the major newspapers and magazines is the phenomenon known as "political correctness" or PC, and its crusade to dislodge Western civilization (and its books) from the center of university life. This doctrine has formed the second part of the "one-two" combination punch that appears to have rocked the serious study of Western thought out of university life. (The first blow came in the 1960s as student radicals, demanding that universities offer courses more "relevant" to "modern" life, took the first steps in seriously undermining the centrality of the West's great books to undergraduate study.)

PC's believers have succeeded spectacularly on two counts. First, they have carved out whole new academic departments where none such existed--Women's studies, African or Black studies, gay studies, Chicano studies, and so on. PC pushed into prominence the idea, first developed by '60s rebels, that the liberal arts should help enhance the quest for self-definition and identification of students. That is, they should have some connection to "real life." For example, female undergraduates should be able to study the writings of other women and learn about how those authors made sense of their time. The objective is to enable those undergraduates to better make sense of their own lives. PC forged a firm link between study and politics--intellectual work should have as its goal the "empowerment" of "oppressed" groups like women, racial minorities, gays, etc.

The other major success claimed by PC adherents is that sad phenomenon I already noted--the receding importance of Western culture in universities. Much of their victory in this regard owes itself to uncompromising ruthlessness. PC'ers really do believe that Shakespeare, the greatest Western dramatist, is really just a "dead white male" without a shred of relevance for the pressing questions of our day. PC also dethroned poor Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The so-called Western "canon," after being weighed in the PC balance, has been found not only useless to the non-white, non-male majority, but offensive in that it fails to acknowledge the validity of non-Western perspectives. WesternCiv is, according to the familiar PC mantra, "racist, sexist, anti-gay."

By branding certain books as the work of intolerant "dead white males" and fit for history's dustbin, the PC'ers have scored a Pyhrric victory. While charges of racism are useful in silencing their critics, such complaints reveal the weakness of the PC'ers position. They have yet to make claims like, "Marcus Aurelius' Meditations consists of impenetrable prose and weak insights into the human condition." Not even the most devote PC ayatollah would dare to say, "Victor Hugo is a second-rate writer, unable to effectively develop his characters and plot." That's the point, though--PC is about politics and not a satisfying conversation with renowned thinkers through examination of their work. As John Searle has noted, unless you share the PC belief that education must be about political transformation, and that Euro-North American culture is fundamentally oppressive, their criticisms of the Western canon seem weak indeed. Those "dead white males" do not come across as so evil after all.

That a movement to overthrow PC is likely, especially at this university, I do not believe. That all liberal arts students at U of T would benefit from familiarizing themselves with the greatest books of more than 2000 years of Western thought, I do not doubt.

Dare we hope for a counter-revolution?

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