Todorov on What is Western Tradition?
Added by Claire W.D. Hughes '94 (English 32 1990)*
Excerpted from Tzvetan Todorov "Crimes Against Humanities" The New Republic, July 3, 1989
Finally, of course, there is the question of the canon. The issues raised by the National Endowment report and the ACLS pamphlet [Speaking for the Humanities] have been debated concretely in the curriculum controversies at Stanford and elsewhere. Having come under pressure from the university's Black Student Union and the Faculty Task Force, and from a campus demonstration conducted by Jesse Jackson to the tune of "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's got to go," Stanford's mandatory "Western Civilization" course was replaced by a course with the rather neutral title of "Cultures, Ideas, Values.' As far as I can tell the vehemence of the debate arises from the fact that several issues, all of them important ones, have been conflated into the single question of the canon. It is essential, however, that they be carefully separated and clarified.
First, all human beings are born within a particular culture--fortunately for them. We are not required to organize the totality of our experiences from scratch, which would be an exhausting task. Through the language and tradition of our group we can learn the organization proper to our culture. And there is no such thing as "university culture" we always begin by observing the universe though lenses tinted by a particular culture.
Without this mastery of part of the collective memory, we should be condemned to non-communication. Modern life, which has destroyed many of the traditional channels of transmission, threatens individuals with a hitherto unknown infirmity: deculturation. Attempts have been made to compensate for the channels destroyed by creating new ones; education is one of them. It is perfectly natural that the tradition one first acquires be that of the country in which one lives; perfectly natural, therefore, that Americans should master the American tradition.
Second, places such as North and South America, Australia, and so on, in which most inhabitants are more or less recent immigrants, raise a problem unknown in France or Germany: Of what does their tradition consist, apart from the period of their lives they have spent on this particular territory? It would seem logical to take into account the origins of the institutions or the concepts that have presided over public debate, and not only the origins of individual inhabitants. This may not always be valid criterion, or an exclusive one; but it is only the sense in which European traditions can be said to be more relevant to the history of the United States than, say, African ones, or Christianity more relevant than Islam. (Even this "more" is relative, and needs to be shored up by historical demonstration.)
To justify the European affiliation by declaring, along with Saul Bellow, that one does not know of "the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans" -- to set up that sort of hierarchy of values -- makes about as much sense in this context as to say one does not know the European equivalents of Zulu painters. Traditions are historical facts, not Olympic games. Lady Muraski's Tale of Genji may be a greater work than Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse des Cleves, but if I am to study French culture, I should read the latter, not the former. That Zulu literature's forte is not the realistic novel, moreover sees hardly a reason to condemn it.
Third, is the western tradition really "racist, sexist, and imperialist," as its detractors claim? Or is it universalist, tolerant, and critical, as its defenders protest? The answer, of course, is that it is both. There is more that one "Western tradition." Racism, sexism, and imperialism have been practised by some and combatted by others: nothing could be more obvious. Every truly rich tradition can be said to encompass different, even contradictory, schools of thought.
While it might be desirable that all students have at least some familiarity with "Western tradition," therefore, it is absurd to impose the same six or 15 or 100 books on every student in every university. The Western tradition is in itself infinitely more various than any reading list. Like all great traditions, it is at once idiosyncratic and universal. Studying a wide variety of texts within this tradition only enhances these qualities.
Fourth, does the fact that most authors of the Western tradition are men, white, and members of the privileged classes imply that the content of their works can be summed up as a defense of the white male elite? Are all whites racist, all men sexist, and so forth? To believe that they are would be to adhere totally to the idea that "being determines consciousness." It is itself a racist way of thinking, since it implies that the color of your skin decides the content of your thought (and so all blacks think alike, as do all whites), and sexist, and elitist.
All theories which claim that interest alone determines the orientation of one's ideas lead to the same impasse. If they were true , the opposition to the suggested changes in the curriculum would be all the more legitimate: Why struggle for the advancement of women if it automatically entails the oppression of men, or for that of blacks if it must bring about the subordination of whites? But this, of course, is ridiculous. The fact that an author is white and male does not allow us to predict exactly what he thinks. There is no contradiction between the necessarily historical context in which a work is created and its greater or lesser universality. In this sense, Cheney [Lynn Cheney, director of NEH] is wrong to accuse the humanities of introducing a political perspective into works that formerly had none. It is at the moment of their creation that works are the most political and the most particular. But we also have the right to ask what they mean to us, above and beyond the circumstances in which they were created.
Fifth, should professors agree with the author they teach? A positive response to this question would tragically impoverish university education. its effect would be to falsify the tradition, preserving only those parts of it that rub us the right way, and to orient teaching toward the inculcation of good. It can be more useful to analyze authors with whom the professor and/or the students disagree: far better to understand how Gargantua is sexist and Huckleberry Finn is racist than to strike them from the reading list. Moreover, it is vital to distinguish between the power of an idea and its rightness (according to present-day opinion), and to hold the former in higher esteem than the latter for the education of the mind. The fact that Plato is anti-democratic does not make him less stimulating than a contemporary social Democrat.
Finally, whatever conservatives and nihilists may think, the canon is neither totally immutable nor totally malleable. Only our habit of locking ourselves into Manichaean alternatives makes it so difficult to describe. The canon is characterized by both continuity and incessant transformations. We might recall that Vermeer, now held by many to be the greatest painter of the Western world, did not appear in any art catalog 150 years ago. One could hardly say that with the rise in his prestige of the canon of European painting has ceased to exist. The canon does not require unanimity, either; merely a relative majority. In each period a minority prefers writers, painters, or philosophers who are not the majority's choice (today they prefer Swedenborg to Marx, or Simone Weil to Simone de Beauvoir); and there is no reason to deplore this state of affairs.
The goal of a humanist, liberal education is to form minds that are simultaneously tolerant and critical. The methods employed to attain this goal is the mastery of a specific tradition: no path leads to the universal except through the particular. If, however, the "means" are left entirely up to the individual professors or students, rather than to the faculty of each university as a whole the "end: has a good chance of being dogmatic; for if students cannot situate themselves with respect to a tradition, they are liable to accept as truth the prejudices of their own time.
To "decenter" our viewpoints, to break free from egocentric and ethnocentric illusions, we must learn to become detached from ourselves, to see our own habits from the outside. There is only one way to achieve this: by confronting our norms with those of other people, by discovery that they, too, are legitimate. (This does not mean renouncing all value judgements: tyranny is despicable in every climate.) Thus it is crucial to study not only our own history, but also other cultures--not in order to contribute some mythical "universal culture" obtained by the juxtaposition of masterpieces divorced from their respective contexts, but in order to convince ourselves there is more than one way of being human. In this sense, the curriculum changes at Stanford would seem to be a step backward. it is easily conceivable that immersion in a foreign culture (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Arab, or black African) would help to extract American students from the provincialism that characterizes children of a great (and therefore overbearing) nation.
It may be objected that these are unrealistic demands. Universities have already cut down on their humanities curricula, and it may be unlikely that they would simultaneously preserve the "Western Civ" courses and throw a few non-western civs as well. Yet the costs are worth bearing if we want our academic institutions to produce not merely better experts, but better citizens, and even better human beings.
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