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White Supremacy, Elitism, and the Future of Liberal Education

A response to Tim Lacy's 'Great Books Socialism'

In his extended essay, “Great Books Socialism?,” recently published on Public Seminar, Tim Lacy makes a compelling case for adapting the practice — suggested by Molly Worthen in an Op-ed for the New York Times — of deploying the great books as ideological tools established by conservative foundations and institutes in the service of leftist ideology, albeit with significant provisos and shifts of emphasis and content. Central among the important revisions is Lacy’s suggestion that the reoriented “Great Books camps” be designed in the service of what he envisions as expressly socialist Great Books reading groups, rather than ideological training grounds for progressive politics within the specific frame of reference of contemporary American politics. What’s more, as he shows persuasively, such an orientation is not at alien to the tradition of Great Books initiatives, including the efforts of Mortimer Adler himself. In so arguing with and against Worthen, Lacy rather roundly rejects the central conclusion of my response to Worthen, which was that “great books should not be reduced to a tool of activism on either the right or the left, since we destroy the real power and value of these books when we try to make them fit any activist agenda.” I remain skeptical of an openly ideological setting for encountering the Great Books (or something like the Great Books), but I believe Lacy’s revision of the historiography of the Great Books — in particular pointing to the socialist tendencies of both a number of works within that tradition and on the part of the persons who brought that canon together — is quite illuminating and surely points to some practical proposals that make a great deal of sense.

Most importantly, Lacy sheds new light on the recent call for “Democratizing the Great Books” from Casey Blake, Roosevelt Montas, and Tamara Mann Tweel, all of whom are central to the efforts of the Freedom and Citizenship Initiative of the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. I am convinced that Blake, Montas and Tweel are absolutely correct both that the Great Books truly are for everyone and also that the Great Books “are a debate […] not a settled dogma,” as they say in response to Worthen’s Op-Ed. Thus, I want here not to re-engage on whether or not an expressly ideological formation to a Great Books program of one kind or another is a good idea; rather I will reply to Lacy’s claim that even though a “socialist sensibility of inclusivity must acknowledge, with regard to great books, that ‘the reek of dead white men’ will put off many,” the Great Books “can be used to undermine the hierarchy, patriarchy, and white supremacy.” Here, Lacy and I agree, and more importantly, I believe this agreement is important for thinking about how we actually can bring to the widest possible community what is best in the works of “the tradition” and in the curricular and programmatic approaches to such works that have been attempted under the banner of “the Great Books,” including the Columbia Core, which Montas (co-author of the Inside Higher Ed piece, linked above) directs.

Lacy describes the potentially liberating role that the “dead white males” can play in arguing that “studying male intellectuals, philosophers, and thinkers of European and Western descent who created the legacy of capitalist Kritik, such as Marx, Engels, Whitman, Leon Trotsky, John Reed, and others” is helpful in developing the capacities of critical reflection that he deems integral to a socialist Great Books program, while adding that this is best done when such a program of study also includes “the great works by Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Ida Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, and Franz Fanon.” At the same time, Lacy says, it is “also important to understand the deeper roots and inspirations, found in figures such as Hegel, Feuerbach, and others. For even anti-foundationalism has its foundations.” In Lacy’s picture, there are three key constituents to a Great Books program that would serve the aim — here I switch vocabularies to the terms used by Blake, Montas, and Tweel — democratizing the Great Books. We need to design a program or reading list that combines (1) the classics of socialist and social democratic thought, largely written in the 19th century by “dead white men,” with (2) the classics of feminist, socialist and (post- and anti-)colonialist thought, and at the same time look at (3) those figures in the tradition who provided the seeds (the “foundations”) of the anti-foundationalist thought “we” want to foreground in developing a program of this kind.

Here, I believe, Lacy (brought into conversation with the educators behind Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship initiative) points to the way that a substantial engagement with the Great Books and with works that respond to them critically from the last century and the current one that holds real promise, but seems to me still to require a structural adjustment in its design.

First the promise: this approach, I believe, can be a constructive counterpoint to the troubling trend — a highly ideological one, though not in a left vs. right way — of “misrepresenting the nature of past misrecognition in order to satisfy ourselves that everyone is recognized equally and fairly today.” This trend, which I have claimed in recent posts on Public Seminar to be present in the misrepresentation of slaves as immigrants by both President Obama and Secretary Carson and in Representative King’s comments about the superiority of American culture or civilization (by which he seems to mean white or European or Western people, these all being equivalent for him), gets going via an idealization of the Western tradition such that the abominations of the past either didn’t happen or weren’t that integral to it and can thus be forgotten or marginalized, just as persons of color, women, and so many “other others” were marginalized by that tradition (think of Rep. King here) or were very real and yet are somehow redeemed by a kind of universal spirit that all people living in the West today have and thus must have been present in their ancestors, however oppressed and misrecognized they were (think Carson or Obama here).

Responding to both of these kinds of errors, the “Great Books for all” program I imagine here would show that, indeed, the forms of misrecognition and exclusion that bring many critics of “traditional” liberal arts education to bemoan the “dead white men” and wish to have done with all that are, indeed, an integral element of the tradition. It will do so through its inclusion of recent voices, often but not always those belonging to persons that the tradition has marginalized, that in one way or another do in fact, as Audre Lorde once put it, interrogatively take down the master’s house by the means of his very tools. By the very same means, however, it would also show that the tradition remains great and in any case remains the foundation of our capacity to critically engage the deeply imperfect world in which we live. In short, I take Lacy (fused here with Blake, Montas and Tweel) to be teaching us that if want to engage as citizens and thinkers with our world in its contemporary circumstances, then we need to engage, for instance, with Du Bois and Fanon, with Goldman and with Wells — and in order to engage with them, we must also already be engaging with those voices, both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic with which they themselves were in conversation.

To here, I say, Lacy and I “vehemently agree” with one another and our Freedom and Citizenship colleagues. I would make one further point in the service of the revision I believe is still needed. And it is here that what I believe to be our ongoing disagreement about the possibility of an expressly ideological Great Books program returns. The point can be made with reference to a number of works that would be included in my imagined Great Books for all program, but let me do so with respect to Arendt, and her critique of connection between essentialism in Enlightenment philosophy and race theory in 19th and 20th century political movements in Origins of Totalitarianism, a book whose relevance for contemporary politics has been keenly felt of late, as Roger Berkowitz has recently discussed in the LA Review of Books. The example is telling because even as Arendt constantly stressed the unwarranted nature of the essentialist tradition in political philosophy, she seems not to have recognized how essentially raced — that is, how white and how European — her vision of the polis as the space of appearance and who can fully appear there remains. Robert Bernasconi, among others, has gone so far as to call her defense of “the tradition,” despite the very connections she shows between that tradition and colonialism, slavery, antisemitism and the Nazi genocide, “pure ideology as Arendt herself understands the term.”

On the contrary, I — and the “Great Books for all” program I want to be a part of — would join Arendt in simultaneously resisting (with all my might) the reductionist and essentialist elements of the broad picture of European superiority. But, like Arendt, the program I envision would remain committed to the notion of a unique critical spirit that emerges from the fusion of a distinctly Greek attachment to reason and freedom with the hard-won notion of a non-parochial power that transcends every tribe, every established community, and all founded laws, which we owe to the religions — all three of them — that recognize Moses as both a lawgiver akin to Solon or Lycurgus and an original and incomparable agent of that “universal” and utterly transcendent power (i.e., as a prophet of the one unique God). That is, while I will not follow Arendt in her insistence that the tradition is necessarily European, and I will deny her claim that this Europeanness does, after all, constitute some kind of cultural superiority, I will join her in judging that our very capacity for judgment, rather than the particular judgments we may reach, remains and will remain reliant on a tradition that emerges out of a contested reflection on “Athens and Jerusalem.” And, for this reason, I will insist that only way to productively engage the contemporary is through constant reference to the “traditional” liberal arts education. In such an education — which I would not call a “Great Books” program, but which I know owes much to the formation of a Great Books curriculum in the US in the period beginning just after WW I and ending with the curricular debates of the 1960s — works from “Athens” are juxtaposed with those from “Jerusalem” and then read together with the works — written in many times and many places from Rome to Alexandria, from Tunis to the Western Islamic empire in Andalusia and north Africa, and later from Italian city-states to the emerging nation-states and empires of France, Britain and Germany — that respond to both those traditions. Such an education, I will insist, must remain ideologically open and be focused on a rootless, cosmopolitan pursuit of truth, wherever it may lead.

Michael Weinman

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