More of those Dead European White Guys
In his blog post of January 5, 2014, Rick Moran highlights the piece by Heather McDonald concerning the destruction of the traditional humanities course of study. In line with this, at The Chronicle of Higher Education dated December 4, 2014, one is greeted with the title "MOOCs as Neocolonialism: Who Controls Knowledge?" MOOCs stand for Massive Open Online Courses and are "aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web."
Author Philip G. Altbach, research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, posits the idea that the MOOC online courses "threaten to exacerbate the worldwide influence of Western academe, bolstering its higher-education hegemony." Thus, "by and large, the readings required by most MOOC courses are American or from other Western countries." Furthermore, "since the vast majority of material used comes from Western academic systems, examples used in science courses are likely to come from the United States or Europe because these countries dominate the literature and articles in influential journals."
Altbach asserts that though "this knowledge base and pedagogical orientation no doubt reflect current ideas of good practice, they may not be the only approach to good scientific inquiry or content." Thus, no matter the discipline -- be it science, literature, philosophy, or anthropology and sociology classes, "the dominant ideas from these [Western centers of knowledge] will dominate academic discourse... and this will no doubt strengthen the hegemony of Western methodologies."
And, of course, since English is the dominant "language of scholarly communication" the English speaking academic culture [will] "hold sway globally."
Altbach is concerned that "the implications for developing countries are serious" because it may "inhibit the emergence of a local academic culture, local academic content, and courses tailored specially for national audiences."
While Altbach maintains that those "responsible for creating, designing, and delivering MOOC courses do not seek to impose their values, or methodologies on others; influence happens organically and without conspiracies" and once "people figure out how to make money from MOOCs, no doubt corporate interests, largely based in the rich world, will seek to corner the market."
Though Altbach maintains that he is not arguing "that the content or methodologies of the most current MOOCs are wrong because they are based on the dominant Western academic approaches" he believes it is important to point out that this "powerful emerging educational movement strengthens the currently dominant academic culture, perhaps making it more difficult for alternative voices to be heard."
You are damned if you do and damned if you don't. In the comments sections, a reader writes, "this is an incredibly weak article that focuses entirely on innuendo."
It is also striking that The Chronicle chooses to use the negatively charged word neocolonialism in its title. The "term neo-colonialism was coined by Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, to describe the socio-economic and political control that can be exercised economically, linguistically, and culturally, whereby promotion of the culture of the neo-colonist country facilitates the cultural assimilation of the colonised people and thus opens the national economy to the multinational corporations of the neo-colonial country."
At no time does Altbach offer an alternative; at no time does he allow for the possibility that as the internet becomes more dominant in developing countries, they, too, can develop their own courses. At no time does he acknowledge that if it were not for the brains of the "rich world," the easy access of information would not exist in the first place.
In March of this year, Cathy Young at the Boston Globe reminds the reader that in 1988 Rev. Jesse Jackson happily chanted "Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture's got to go!" at Stanford University. She explains that the National Association of Scholars led the way in eliminating Stanford University's Western Culture requirement. Young finds an "exasperating paradox" that the "West is attacked as uniquely oppressive even though it has gained unprecedented rights and freedoms for women, gays and lesbians, and for individuals in general." Also neglected in this bashing of Western civilization is the fact that "self-criticism, too, is a Western tradition." But instead, the self-criticism morphs into a "self-loathing." Young notes the "politically correct taboos surrounding any discussions about slavery in African and Arab societies." She is dismayed about the "wrongheaded approach to multicultural education that stresses the positive aspects of other civilizations and the negative aspects of our own" and maintains it actually breeds a dangerous "ignorance."
Dennis Prager in "Why the Left Hates the Old" maintains that "the left's dismissal of old people is much more than another left-wing ad hominem attack." Prager maintains that at the core of the left's contempt for the old is "a yearning for utopia" and the other is an inflated sense of "self esteem." Those "on the left are certain that they are smarter, kinder, more moral and more compassionate" than any old, antiquated people or ideas.
Thus, neglecting art and music of the great masters of old is a requirement. Additionally, "standards of excellence are neglected in favor of the latest avant-garde experimentation." It also entails the reason why the "left has contempt for the Bible." In sum, to the "progressives, the idea of having 2,000 and 3,000-year-old texts guide a person's behavior today is ludicrous."
But the literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race. As both a writer of colour and an ardent (but not uncritical) devotee of the canon, I have little time for people who say that black people cannot relate to books written 2,000 years ago by a bunch of dead white guys, or that Maya Angelou is better than Shakespeare. This denies us our shared humanity across racial divides.
Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens -- all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio's Decameron or Pico's Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.
Yet, McDonald explains that "the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students... to 'alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.'"
There is something inherently demeaning about this idea that because the West leads the world, there is something suspect about the end results. That the Chronicle would cast the article with the term neocolonialism which is the "geopolitical practice of using capitalism, business globalization, and cultural imperialism to influence a country, in lieu of either direct military control or indirect political control, i.e. imperialism and hegemony" emphasizes the constant refrain so evident on college campuses these days. That Altbach paints his criticism with the not-so-subtle depreciatory dig at corporate wealth only reinforces class division rather than analysis of classical ideas.
Those ideas of freedom, liberty, opportunity, and choice are what most global communities are eager for. Far too many Americans are lured into believing that these ideas are passé. To "trash" these ideas is to diminish the many strengths of our civilization. An "academically rigorous canon is ...blindingly obvious." The "pernicious rush to relevance" and the "inevitable dummying down" of the canon is hurting our young.
We, in America, who were given these gifts, are mighty careless and thoughtless in their application.
Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmailcom