Constructing a tradition

As most readers of this blog know, I teach at a school in the Great Books tradition. While Shimer is more liberal and open to contemporary sources than most schools in that tradition, our curriculum remains pretty firmly within the classics of the “Western tradition.” I think it’s fair to say that the current faculty are all pretty convinced of the need to add further diversity to our curriculum, though there are disagreements on how best to go about it. For classes with a modern focus, it’s a little easier, because there are more texts and other materials reflecting diverse gender, sexuality, race, class, etc., backgrounds available — “diversity” in the sense it is normally used in contemporary discussions. For classes with a pre-modern focus, the problem is often harder.

My approach to “diversifying” the pre-modern half of Shimer’s capstone course centered on adding secondary sources (mainly by authors who bring a contemporary sense of “diversity”), taking advantage of texts by women where available, and treating Islam as a self-evident equal partner within the Western tradition — something I plan to continue in the second, modern half with a unit on the Iranian Revolution. Another colleague recently took the approach of adding more “Eastern” texts into the mix, which I was hesitant to do myself. It’s not that I am dogmatically pro-Western by any means, but I worry about spreading ourselves too thin. I also know what kind of critical narrative I am trying to construct by including Islam within the Western mix, but I am not at all sure what kind of story I would be telling by juxtaposing texts from cultural traditions that developed very independently from anthing connected to “the West.”

More recently, we’ve been discussing how to “diversify” our course on philosophy and theology, which tends to have a strongly Christian bias. My proposal was to broaden it to include all three major monotheistic traditions and show the conflicts and alternate solutions within them of some shared problems — but some colleagues felt this was not “diverse” enough and that “Eastern” sources would be included for genuine diversity. After all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are in some sense just “one” tradition.

I agree with that sentiment in a way, but I am also hesitant. I think that genuinely treating them as “one” tradition — in which all three strands genuinely have equal dignity — is actually pretty radical and is not at all common. I worry that the critical edge that you gain by putting Christianity in dialogue with its intimate “others” is lost if you skip straight to other religious and philosophical traditions where that millenia-long conflict and anxiety of influence is missing. Injecting serious and ongoing attention to Judaism and Islam just seems to guarantee a productive critical perspective in a way that going further afield would not.

I suppose what I keep leaning toward is expanding the “Western tradition” in a way that highlights conflict, rivaly, and appropriation within the “canon” itself — a “great conversation” with more sharp elbows and shouting matches, if you will. Ultimately I want to teach the “Western tradition” as a way of highlighting the contingency and artificiality of the “Western tradition” as a construct. The downside is that such a critical narrative presupposes, and hence necessarily reinscribes, the traditional narrative. Especially given that we can no longer assume that people graduate high school with any sense of the “Western tradition” (if we ever could), we would be in the awkward position of teaching against something they never thought or even knew about in the first place.

There’s also a case to be made that since the “Western tradition” is artificial, there’s nothing preventing us from creating a new, avowedly artificial tradition that brings an eclectic group of world classics into dialogue with each other. Why is it “better” to bring Machiavelli and Hobbes into dialogue than to bring Machiavelli and Sun Tzu into dialogue, simply because Hobbes is more likely to have read Machiavelli? Is the Chinese political situation really more different in some fundamental way than the English and Italian political situations were? What is the canon of rigor here other than the artificial construct of the “Western tradition”?

On the other hand, I frankly distrust Western appropriations of “Eastern” texts, which tend to be naively optimistic and “New Age-y” in a way that is deeply unappealing to me. I imagine that undergrads would be especially susceptible to that kind of thing. But if we were reading them as classics and not as their own special set of exotically foreign texts, maybe that problem would be less serious — if it is indeed serious in the first place.

In conclusion, I really want to diversify the canon that is reflected in Shimer’s core curriculum, but I’m not sure how to do that responsibly — in large part because I don’t know what “responsibility” even means in this context. Maybe you all have ideas.

6 thoughts on “Constructing a tradition

  1. These many long years after having studied history of religions, I have come to acknowledge that I am religiously and culturally a Christian, like it or not. Sure, the exotic features of other major world religions are intriguing. I am still a fan of Japanese Buddhism. But it is my understanding of my own orientation that matters most to me, enough to find myself admiring the Marxist atheist Christianity of Jean-Luc Nancy. He likely doesn’t call himself a Christian. His commentaries on that history are provocative and illustrate how diverse our tradition is in itself. His suggestions about the influence of globalization show that we do not need to go off looking for the Orient; it’s coming at us, like it or not.

  2. This is not a new direction, but a suggestion of a category of secondary lit. Two great books – Gender: Antiquity and Its Legacy by Brooke Holmes and Race: Antiquity and its Legacy by Denise McCoskey – show how the ancients are both very different and the source of contemporary thinking.

  3. I share your reluctance; the extent to which Eastern sources were mixed into a Western-canonical “great books” approach in my undergrad honors college did nothing of critical usefulness. It served to reproduce, in its absence from, and enhance, in its presence in the Western sources we used a characteristic enlightened orientalism. I’m not sure there’s any way to use mere exposure to Eastern thought to critique this trend in Western thought. Maybe presenting the West as internally problematic would help if done first, but I imagine the consequence will be no less the students using the East as an escape valve for problematic Westernisms.

  4. We love using the Other as a way to become right, as though what was wrong with us could be fixed by simply realigning ourselves with that thing people like and respect over there. (Especially when people don’t generally like and respect that thing over there, but should, and we can make our voice part of the call for that obligation, and hide the rest of ourselves behind that activism.) I’m not sure how to introduce a truly external perspective without it becoming an escape from critical pedagogy in exactly this kind of way.

  5. I cannot recommend Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ ‘Epistemologies of the South’ as a theoretical framework for the task you’re undertaking. It’s firmly in the left radical tradition, but (IMO) the central take away is to start from the acknowledgement that all epistemological traditions are necessarily incomplete, and to look for points of commonality between traditions that enable them to participate in dialogue with each other. Doing so automatically highlights points of differentiation, but without assertions of difference becoming the dominant paradigm of engaging with Other.

    I think it’s very much what Matt Frost is talking about above, but I’m not sure an escape from critical approaches is a bad thing. Critical theory does good – it asks us what’s missing. But it doesn’t give us a framework to say, well, what do we do with our commonality and difference? It’s that second question that’s the fundamental one.

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