I took German in college and one of the first readings in the intermediate course was called “A Table is a Table.” In the story, an old man becomes bored with his surroundings and renames everything in his house. Some amount of logic drives this; the names for everything are random conventions and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be called something else.
But this isn’t a story about a rose by any other name. By the end of the tale, the old man has become unable to communicate with anyone because no one shares his vocabulary. The title serves as a warning: a table is a table. Although the name “table” is random, the standardization works best.
I’m not opposing change per se, but I do see this pattern in the academic humanities of the past decade or more. For instance, an “intellectual” is defined as someone who holds a particular set of political and social beliefs, regardless of whether the methods of acquiring those beliefs would legitimately be described as “intellectual.” One sees this in politics as well; it’s convenient for some activists to conflate homophobia and religious views on sexuality as a way of winning sympathy. The activists redefined “identity” as being the person and the sexual behavior, meaning that opposition to the sexual behavior is opposition to a person’s identity. By that logic, the activist claims that the religious person’s call to “hate the sin but love the sinner” is disingenuous. This causes conflict where none should exist. (To be fair, there are quite a few religious folks who forget the love part of that statement. That must be why Pope Francis’ comments are on the topic were so controversial.)
This points to a greater problem: the larger inability of the two sides to dialogue. No shared vocabulary means no common ground.
And that brings me to high school English classes in the U.S. Specifically, world literature classes. At many schools, “world literature” emphasizes works by Americans and Brits, plus a couple of continental Europeans (usually ancient Greeks) and usually topped off by Chinua Achebe and perhaps Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.
Is part of the world missing here?
Of course it is, unless I add Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. But then again, Hesse was German/Swiss and only wrote about an Asian topic; that means I can’t count him as the token Asian.
So the world is now defined as white people and people who criticize white people. (Remember, Hispanics are technically Caucasian.) Does anyone else see a problem here?
The people who recognize the problem often prescribe a curriculum that replicates their opposition’s shortcomings. The newly added texts add to the criticism of white people by others while eliminating “dead white males.” If a text doesn’t follow the political ideals behind this curriculum, it is unacceptable because it reinforces current power structures. Or something like that.
In the end, both sides have redefined “world” and have no common ground. Unfortunately, they also can’t talk with the rest of the world because no one seems to want to teach authentic foreign cultural traditions. That’s too “subversive” for both sides.
To my non-U.S. readers: If you want to know why so few native-born Americans know anything about you, it’s because 49% define “world” as “Western world” while another 49% only define you as intellectual when you’re criticizing the Western world. You are no longer a table.
This was my two percent’s worth.