Friday, April 27, 2007

Civilization, Barbarism, and the Classroom
Maimon Schwarzaschild

Steven Balch writes about barbarism and civilization - and how civilization sometimes disarms itself intellectually, morally, and therefore militarily:

Barbarian problems arise when peoples backward in wealth, culture, and technology, pose violent threats of a serious, even existential, character to societies far more advanced. The West hasn’t faced this kind of menace since the Middles Ages. Now, once more, it does.

Barbarism is a relative term. The Mongols who subdued the Sung Chinese were neither wholly unlettered nor uncouth. Kublai Khan’s mother was, in fact, a practicing Christian. Nor were the barbarians who swarmed over the Rhine in 406. Mongols and Germans were barbarians only by virtue of the gulf that separated their level of cultural attainment from those they defeated.

[Barbarism's] one chance rests on the intellectual flaws of the civilized - particularly their failure to appreciate their own worth.

Here then is the teachable moment...  In order to suppress the new barbarism we should now be refocusing our classrooms on the serious and sympathetic study of civilization's nature, achievements, and progress- that is, on its moral reasons for being.

Not likely, to put it mildly, in today's academic climate; as Balch - president of National Association of Scholars, which bucks the academic trends - knows all too well.

Our civilization's peculiar misfortune is to be under a double assault, physically by the undercivilized from without, and psychologically by those surfeited with it from within.  And these last own the classroom.

Using fear to conquer has a long history.  What's unprecedented is the current effort to employ shame to the same effect.  At the heart of this project lies the construction of a "master narrative" belittling civilization's heritage and elevating its shortcomings, real or imagined, into transcening evils.  This then sets the stage for the narrative's masters to proclaim themselves a new redemptive elite, charged with emancipating the benighted from their engrained racism, sexism, classism, chavinism, homophobia, speciesism, ecocide, etc.

It is hard to identify many other historical instances in which an intellectual class has aspired to boost itself to dominance, with fair prospects of success, almost entirely through the leveraging of shame...

What then is the answer?  Clearly it must involve challenging the privileged position that shame's discourse now enjoys.  Its premises are simpleminded, its arguments misleading, and its conclusions destructive.

Shame's purveyors have an inside lock on campus life.  But... something ourside is beating against the gates.

Balch writes thoughtfully, and very realistically.  Read the whole thing.

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Maimon Schwarzaschild


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