Category: Society

Want to get a liberal education? Don’t major in identity studies

memorychalet

From the late historian Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet:

“Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: ‘gender studies,’ ‘women’s studies,’ ‘Asian-Pacific-American studies,’ and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves – thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine” (202).

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Here Judt aptly expresses a sentiment I have had often: that such programs, whether in the classroom or outside it, are counterproductive to the goal of integrated diversity. Rather than integrating minorities into their surrounding community, they reinforce the “minority” status that is so often accompanied by a low-level but embittering sense of victimhood which keeps us from transcending racial and cultural lines. Judt is right in saying this is inimical to true liberal education, for liberal education, properly understood, expands one’s view to appreciate the world around them, which has a wonderful variety of human experience, transcending what often are self-imposed boundaries of race and culture.

A Little Austerity for Our Day

memorychalet

Known for his masterful history of post-World War II Europe, Postwar (Penguin, 2006), historian Tony Judt wrote The Memory Chalet (Penguin, 2010) at the twilight of his life, almost entirely incapacitated from ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease). This is a series of essays recalling various times in his life to which his mind would turn for comfort and entertainment while trapped in his own body. He writes on various topics, but has a lot to say about today’s political environment, which he believed lacks the sense of a common purpose and a common good that marked earlier generations. Below is an excerpt which I would wholeheartedly affirm:

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“We have substituted endless commerce for public purpose, and expect no higher aspirations from our leaders. Sixty years after Churchill could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” our very own war president [George W. Bush, president at the time of writing] – notwithstanding the hyperventilated moralism of his rhetoric – could think of nothing more to ask of us in the wake of September 11, 2001, than to continue shopping. This impoverished view of community – the “togetherness” of consumption – is all we deserve from those who now govern us. If we want better rulers, we must learn to ask more from them and less for ourselves. A little austerity might be in order” (32).

Wilberforce: Social Activist Extraordinaire

Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce in the 2007 film, Amazing Grace

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27)

If anyone thought the slave trade was Wilberforce’s singular concern, he’d be wrong. Wilberforce was tireless in his efforts to alleviate an endless list of social ills (he was often a classic case of someone “stretching himself too thin”), and to this end he created several societies for the betterment of society’s weakest and most vulnerable. Here’s a small sampling of some of the societies he created (many with great names, my favorite being the last one):

–       Asylum for the Support and Encouragement of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor

–       Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor

–       Society for the Relief of the Industrious Poor

–       British National Endeavor for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors

–       Asylum House of Refuge for Orphaned Girls Whose Parents Cannot Be Found

–       Institute for the Protection of Young Girls

–       Friendly Female Society for the Relief of the Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women, of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days