MERIT: A DEBATE appeared in the journal Academic Questions, vol 4 (1991), pages 67-78. It is ©1991 Transaction Publishers, Rutgers University, 35 Berrue Circle, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8042, with telephone 732-445-2280 and website <http://www.transactionpub.com>. It may not be reproduced without the (paid!) permission of the publishers.
Merit: A Debate
Ralph A. Raimi
Eugene V. Calabrese
Editor's Note: Professors Raimi and Calabrese, friendly colleagues for many years at the University of Rochester, have long found themselves of divided mind on many issues. It is with great appreciation that we thank them for their willingness to air in our pages their most recent differences over the philosophy of the public school curriculum.
Opening Statement by Professor Raimi
Merit is individual, not collective, and it cannot be obtained by inheritance. Not even ethnic "inheritance." One must not, for example, try to claim merit for all Americans simply because Abraham Lincoln was American. Lincoln was Lincoln, admirable in many ways. Lincoln was American, too, and fortunate for other Americans that he was, for if he had been Nepalese he might not have got the chance to do this particular country much good. But there is not one American alive who is entitled to say, "I'm American, and Lincoln was American just like me; and are we not therefore admirable?"
Not only are we not entitled to a share in Lincoln's greatness by virtue of living on the same land he lived on, but even if we were his literal grandchildren, sharing his very genes, we could have no such claim. That would be as pointless as to say, "My grandfather won the Olympic thousand meter run; what speedy runners we are!"
It is a lesson that all civilized people must learn, but which too few do: If we want to be proud of something in our heritage, we cannot rest on the excellence of that heritage alone. We were not the ones who created that heritage. If we are to be proud of anything, it must be our own actions only (so long as they are something to be proud of); and if we do look to our heritage it must be to learn from it, and maybe to show that what we are doing now is worthy of it now -- not that some ancestor did something admirable once upon a time. It is glorious to add to a glorious heritage, sure, but simply to have it is just plain luck.
Everyone has a glorious heritage, after all, when borrowing is permitted. Lincoln was no ancestor of mine; my literal ancestors of his time were not even Americans, as Lincoln was, nor were they Christians, as Lincoln was. Half of my ancestors were not even males, as Lincoln was. Yet I claim Lincoln's legacy just the same. Tears come into my eyes when I read the words of his Second Inaugural Address, carved into his Memorial in Washington; why? Why should I consider Abraham Lincoln part of my own "glorious heritage?" What does it mean, that I should feel kinship with Lincoln, and that when I come among people who are not Americans I feel a certain distinction, that I have Lincoln in my ancestry while they perhaps do not?
Since I can only claim merit for my own actions and ideas, it can only be that I feel that somehow, through learning about Lincoln's struggle, I have come to behave better, perhaps with more generosity of spirit, with more love of liberty, than I otherwise would. I certainly cannot borrow Lincoln's generosity and liberalism directly, but through knowing Lincoln's example, even at this distance, and following his example as best I can, I walk a little straighter than the follower of Lenin who still has Lincoln to learn. Of course, I must first myself have learned somewhere what the example was. Walking the streets of America is not yet enough.
Sometimes I put this process into metaphorical language, and say I "am descended from" Abraham Lincoln. He is not my only such ancestor. There are Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, too, and even the austere George Washington, as little like me in many particulars as each of them surely was. Nor is statecraft the only line of work my ancestors followed: some of them were scientists, like Archimedes, Newton, Einstein and Gauss; some were artists, like Rembrandt and the builders of the Parthenon; some were musicians, like Bach.
Carved into the lintel of most great libraries are the names of such men: philosophers, statesmen, pioneers of democracy, of poetry, of science. These names suggest to every passer-by a possible heritage, a heritage we are all entitled to borrow if we deserve it, but a heritage which is not automatically ours simply because these people hailed from our plot of land, or shared our religion, language, race or sex. It is ours only to the degree we can come to understand them and their works, and improve ourselves thereby.
Today we hear a clamor from some, that the names carved into that library are a bad selection. They are all males, it is said, or all white; shall there be no equal opportunity for women too? For Blacks, Japanese, and American Indians? The reformers of Education speak much of "diversity" these days, claiming that concentration on so narrow a heritage, in the study of history, literature and so on, cripples young minds and gives them a distorted view of a multicultural world.
The origin of this sort of criticism is pride, in the desire of those who do not recognize Newton as an ancestor (because he was male? European?) to honor someone they think more closely related to themselves or to some other neglected group. Someone, one supposes, to whom Puerto Rican or Black children can better "relate". This criticism, this point of view, is then carried forward through the noblesse oblige of those who are indeed male, or European, and wish to share their boon with those who are not.
But it is only those who take the narrow view of "ancestor" who can be deceived this way. Almost none of us has literal ancestors of any such note, even ethnic ancestors. I am not Greek like Aristotle, Christian like Lincoln, or German like Bach, but I do feel ennobled by belonging to a human race that can be improved by knowledge of their work. If I were Greek, I could have no more reason to be proud of Aristotle than I already have. Again, it is quite impossible to divide me from Bach, saying, "He is German, and not yours," as Wagner would have said. Bach is already mine, so long as I live and hear; he is ancestor to all who hear, and a foreign mystery to those who do not.
There are Greeks, of course, who feel themselves a bit above other folk because Aristotle was a Greek. There might even be men who feel themselves a bit above women because Aristotle was a male, and Europeans who feel themselves a bit above Blacks because Aristotle was white. These people are wrong, and except as excused by ignorance, wicked. Their kind of feeling leads to war and slavery. It must be countered wherever it is found, and most particularly in the education of young people.
The answer to this evil is not to be found in the belittling of Aristotle, or the "equal opportunity" device of making sure that, of the names carved on the public library facade, 12% are Black and half are women, and that each smaller group is represented according to its voting power in Monroe County. The models we carve into the library lintel, and into our educational curriculum, must be chosen for excellence, for their benign influence upon our present civilization -- not for proportional representation. They must be names of those who have taught us something of the first importance, if they are up there for having been teachers, or of those whose art has most profoundly informed today's artistic sensibility, if they are up there for having been artists, and so on according to the category in question, as we choose the heritage we propose to live by.
The regents of the State of New York are now engaged in preparing a new curriculum for the public schools that "recognizes" the diversity in our American population and its origins. In teaching history, this apparently means that the history of many cultures must be considered, and not just "the history of the pilgrim fathers and all that." Well of course, and if this represents a departure from what the schools have been doing one is saddened to hear of their previous neglect. But the proposal has ominous overtones.
For example, one newspaper account of the regents' ideas suggested that the politics of the Iroquois Federation is to be given equal billing with the philosophy of John Locke (as understood by Jefferson and his group), as a foundation for our American democracy. This would certainly distort the actual intellectual history of the founding of this country, and for what? So that Native Americans can better feel proud of their heritage, with the Iroquois constitution now counted as the origin of the Bill of Rights? It isn't, you know, nor is there any reason for today's Iroquois to thirst for any such identification.
Let me repeat: My own ancestors did not live in America in the 18th Century (in fact I do not know what country any of them did live in at that time). I could not, even if I wished to, take credit for the Bill of Rights, or revere Locke and Blackstone above the political theorists of the Iroquois, on any filial connection. And if I were myself an Iroquois, or English, that should make no difference either. I only insist, with or without having a literal affiliation with those possible "borrowed ancestors," that we all, all of us Americans, black and white, man and woman, take care that our children are taught what is important in the theory of democracy that underlies today's law and prosperity, and taught truly where it came from and what it requires us, as citizens, to continue to accomplish if we are to be worthy of that past. We are not teaching these things to make those persons proud who think they can gather credits by virtue of race or sex, but rather to make all of us better able to carry forward this tradition that we all equally share who are willing to take it up. We cannot do this if we defer, even from generosity, to the prejudices of those who desire a painless, unearned identification with heroes of the past. And we cannot do this if we falsify a legend for the past, to satisfy for convenience or mistaken noblesse oblige, the doctrine of "equal time."
The doctrine of equal time is a danger, not a benefit, in that it confirms the notion that one is automatically entitled to take pride in the achievements of his forebears, or persons whose only link is a shared sex, race, or ethnicity. Once we admit that a woman cannot enjoy a glorious heritage, that it isn't hers, unless women can be named among its creators, we say with the same breath that a woman who can count women among the heroes of her past already has merit thereby, with no further striving. Once we argue that without a Black "rôle model" -- even if trumped up for the occasion -- a Black child can have no models worth emulation, then we are sanctioning the formation of a separate Black civilization in our midst, and confirming all that is evil in racial segregation. If we then cast about for a woman's name to carve beside Archimedes, Newton and Einstein, "for balance", what shall we do about the Armenians and the Nepalese? Shall they have no Newtons too?
There is also, after all, truth to be served. The falsity of the pride one might enjoy in seeing one's favorite unworthy name beside that of Aristotle, that of a Christian, a woman or a Nepalese, however the politics of the moment may run, will only embarrass in time the person who, ignorant now, later learns better. It will not only borrow the evil that falsehood always entrains, but will produce shame where shame has no place, teaching most children, who will still find themselves "underrepresented," that they are unworthy, for taint of blood or some failure of their own ancestral or sexual grouping. The harm goes as easily the other way too, for if women, or Blacks, or Germans, strive so for heroes of their own, to claim them regardless of truth, why should not today's Greek feel superior, by reason of blood, when a real Aristotle is for true superiority carved into the stones of his public library? He will have been taught the doctrine of blood superiority by those very egalitarians who imagine, they say, that their revisions of the past are having the opposite effect.
There can be, as there has been, no greater danger to the peace of the world than this. How fortunate it is that in the teaching of history, in "the search for a usable past," the cause of peace, the cause of pride, and the cause of truth are one. As my own ancestor Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, honesty is the best policy.
In his very stirring paper, Merit, Professor Raimi offers a vision of an egalitarian society in which each individual bears responsibility for establishing his own excellence, and borrows no honors that he has not earned by his own efforts. That is, having glorious ancestors, or belonging to an ethnic group whose accomplishments are notable, will confer no benefits by ascription. Americans have no reason to feel proud just because Lincoln was American, he writes, and Germans have no more claim to Bach than Black Africans do.
The corollary of this observation, which from a logical point of view cannot be faulted, is that certain educational innovations are by his standards downright wicked (not too strong a word), if their purport is to provide certain minority groups in today's America with examples out of "their own" heritage that will make them as proud to be what they are, as the majority (white, largely Christian and European) already feels. To put deliberately into the curriculum the literary works of more female novelists, for example, or Black or Moslem poets, than there are now, just so that public school girls, Blacks and Moslems will feel better about themselves than they would if only the usual diet of Browning and Hemingway is continued, is for Professor Raimi a pandering to unworthy sentiments.
Let us have the very best poets in our school anthologies, he says, regardless of race, religion and so on; if they all turn out to be white males, well, so be it. There is no reason why a Black child cannot be proud of his poetical heritage of Browning and Frost, his scientific heritage of Newton and Archimedes, his musical heritage of Bach, just because he is Black and they are not. Raimi himself is not English of origin, or Christian of religion, he says, and yet feels kinship with such as Browning and Lincoln; why should not the Black child learn the same, and the female child, and the Armenian and the rest? A heritage is to be earned, studied and followed, upon which it may with honor be borrowed; there is no merit in its mere inheritance.
In short, says Raimi, since there is no reason for Blacks or women to feel ashamed of the lack of Blacks or women in the ancestry that is exhibited in the schools as worthy of reverence, we should simply tell them they are as good as anyone else and make them learn it. Meanwhile, on with the excellence of Shakespeare and Newton, and not a word about Blacks or women as having contributed to the civilization he proposes to have them share with him. If there is room for only fifteen writers, and the top fifteen include no Blacks, then the Black contribution doesn't deserve mention. Likewise women.
It is hard to believe Professor Raimi himself behaves this way in his own mind, harder to believe he maintained any such attitude when he was ten or fifteen years old. Self-esteem increases with age, and youngsters are notoriously uneasy about their own worth, always looking for a group to give them confidence. No child can withstand the derision of his companions. If he is all alone in being a Catholic in the midst of Protestants, all of whom tell him that his saints were frauds and his Bishop a liar, his will to be different, even his will to be right, will collapse. Only by finding some place where his own heroes are revered (in his church, perhaps, or his home) will he be able to maintain that balance we all want him to enjoy.
Argue what you will, if he never sees that a Catholic (or a Black, or a woman) has done something notable he will, in the immaturity of his youth, think something is wrong with Catholics (or Blacks, or women). I defy Professor Raimi, who is a Jew, to say that it was never pointed out to him in his own youth that Mendelssohn and Einstein were Jews, and that he did not feel a bit more worthy for that fact. The Bible, the backbone of Western Civilization, is the very history of the ancient Jews, and was written by Jews; did Professor Raimi never feel a proprietary pride in it? Never? Did not these things contribute to the self-confidence he feels today, when facing the world? I ask him to look to his soul, and answer.
Surely, Professor Raimi, you remember the song, "Oy, shicker is a Goy, shicker is a Goy; shicker is er, trinken miz er, weil er is a Goy." ("Oh, how drunk is the Gentile: He is drunk because, being a Gentile, it is in his nature to drink.") Your parents were embarrassed when this song was sung in their presence, but that was egalitarian bias on their part; in fact, they half believed it, for were not the Polacks of your Chene Street childhood notoriously drunk on Saturday nights, wasting their wages and beating their wives? Yes, your parents tried to teach you that with the coming of the great socialist revolution all this would pass, and Gentiles and Jews would live in harmony and be equally responsible and wise; but didn't you get praised in school for being clever at arithmetic, and beat up in the school yard for being too damn smart? And didn't you just know, inside, that the reason for your being good at reading and arithmetic was because you were a Jew, descended from Joseph, son of Jacob, who could decipher dreams as the Goyishe Pharaoh could not?
You will argue that it ought not to be so. You will say, and rightly, that your parents and cousins were minority folk in an alien surrounding when they lived in Poland and suffered the taunts and the disabilities that went with being a Jew there; but that while it was natural that your people should seize on what they could to preserve their self-confidence it was also wrong. They should not have seized on false doctrine, you say, and indeed you note that some among them taught their children better: That in a free country without pogroms we don't need this sort of false pride, and that everyone -- not just "us" -- has the right to be proud of Einstein, in that Einstein was human in common with Jew and Gentile alike, all of whom may take joy in knowing that humans are capable of such excellence.
Of course your parents were socialists -- weren't we all? -- and you may have been disappointed along with them, as the years went on, to see that the socialist dream did not, in its economic teaching, work out; but do you not recognize that you still cling to all its millenarian trappings of the brotherhood of man? The evidence is as clear in the social sphere as in the economic. In every corner of the world today there are found arrogant majorities and defiant minorities at gunpoint. It is futile to tell the minority to consider the heroes of the majority to be their heroes too, to tell them that the only thing that prevents their full assimilation into the good graces and economic well-being enjoyed by that majority is their pig-headed refusal to adopt those heroes as their own. It has been tried; it doesn't work.
Join us, says the majority, as if the British could make good Anglicans out of the Catholics of Ulster and the Moslems of Aligarh, and so preserve the peace. You're not asking them to be good Anglicans, you say? But that's what they hear, when you fill their classrooms with Whitey's poetry and Buster's science. Sure, Archimedes and Einstein were not Anglican; I only use "Anglican" as a metaphor. But they are Whitey, they are males, they are European, they are intellectuals. They cannot be adopted by people who feel them as aliens; there must be a leading-in process, that makes use of the nature of human beings rather than an iron logic that is simply not going to be heard.
A Jew like you can adopt Archimedes as an ancestor easily enough; after all, he is not so different from Einstein, who is one of yours. You are so close to being born into the majority culture that it makes little difference, and still your relatives made up songs about the Goyim and their essential worthlessness; if you had taken those songs seriously enough you might never have come to the knowledge of your borrowed ancestry. Think about the Black; what songs has he learned, with which to defend himself against a better understanding?
When Franklin said that honesty was the best policy, he was using the word "policy" deliberately, to mean "statecraft" or political plan, as one might speak of "public policy." He was answering an implied question, as one practical man to another: "What should I say, in such and such a case?" might be the question, where some tangled knot of intrigue was in question: "What policy should I adopt here?"
Why, Sir, honesty! -- was Franklin's answer, as if to say, why make it so complicated? You'll only dig yourself in deeper, he was saying, if you adopt any other policy. Now Franklin knew as well as the next man how to be devious, and so did not really mean that one should be nothing but honest at all times. That particular line of his has a tone of wider application than that, a tone common to all Franklin's pronouncements, the tone of simplicity and practicality: He meant, don't make it complicated, when something simple will work.
That honesty should so often be the simple thing, the thing that actually works, is amusing; Franklin enjoyed paradoxes of this sort. His was an era when the Puritans' heritage was being reviled for its rigidity, reason replacing God in the esteem of intellectuals. At such a time, a new basis for morality was being sought. Adam Smith was discovering morality in the cybernetic mechanisms of the marketplace, while Franklin himself was finding truth in science. Asked for a choice of policy, how delicious to be able to reply that the Puritan answer was, upon rational reflection, the best!
But Franklin did not mean to say that in his America -- or today's -- one should speak only the truth and hang the consequences. Shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not the best policy if one's purpose is to minimize the loss of life; Franklin knew this as well as Holmes. But Professor Raimi says yes, one is required to shout "Fire!" because people need to be warned, and it is the truth; and if they trample each other down instead of queuing up at the exits like good Englishmen, that is then their fault, not the fault of the man who shouted "Fire!"
Is it really so reprehensible for an usher to say, "No need to panic, plenty of time to get out, this way, please, ladies and gentlemen," even if that is not entirely true? In every country of the world, even the most civilized by Raimi's standards, in Belgium, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, not to mention those where the population is less rich and less educated, as in Africa and Asia, the shouters of "Fire!" are generating strife without much difficulty. It is so easy for the Turk to hate the Armenian, and then kill him. In France there are the Algerians, in India the Moslems, in Italy the Sicilians, in Spain the Flamencos.
We have in America begun a process away from all this, and the difficulties are very great. When we speak of toleration, we must understand by it toleration of irrational behavior as well as toleration of mere differences of color or ethnic tradition. A great part of our population has been hurt, hurt more deeply than any Ghetto Jew of Europe, made to feel unworthy in its very bones. As a laboratory rat, when the experimenter gives him a succession of insoluble problems, learns to avoid looking at the next puzzle, even if he is starved or given electric shocks in punishment, our Blacks have come near to total avoidance of our entire traditional American (Puritan, responsible, hard-working) patterns of behavior. How shall they be brought back? Raimi says it is not our problem, but theirs. We need only insist on the naked truth, and build no barriers.
Be practical, Professor Raimi. Without Einstein, without Mendelssohn, without a traditional contempt for drunken brawlers, you might not have felt so free to take up Abraham Lincoln as an ancestor. You might have feared every evidence of the superiority of your non-Jewish neighbors, relying on arms or on drugs to even the score. But the score being already nearly even, that was not necessary.
What harm will it do to put LeRoi Jones beside George Bernard Shaw in that high school anthology? Comparisons are odious anyhow. It should be mentioned that George Eliot was a woman, and mentioned more than necessary. You imagine that saying it once is enough, or even more than enough, since it doesn't matter, in your philosophy, whether a writer is a man or a woman anyhow. Indeed, you say it shouldn't matter, and that even to mention it is to continue the sad division of the sexes that so troubles us today.
But is that the best policy? How do women, how do little girls actually behave? From what do they get their ambition? Their elders are filled with reflex behavior patterns, that tell them to counsel little girls to "behave like little girls," rather than try to fix the stopped-up washing machine. This will not reverse itself without a deliberate effort to do and say what is not quite true: to act as if women have always been writers like George Eliot and scientists like Marie Curie. One should behave with one's own children, and television shows should be written, as if fixing drains were quite customary among little girls.
As for the Blacks, the principle is the same. No, it is probably not necessary to carve Martin Luther King's name beside Aristotle's, but it is necessary to give him more than equal time somewhere, for the time being, not for his intrinsic worth as a writer or philosopher (and who can gauge that, anyhow?), but for his importance in the recent history of this country (which, incidentally, makes the attention he receives really quite valid), and not least for the confidence his example can provide, to that twelve percent of our population which, except for him, might by now have made a Beirut out of New York City.
New York City is in trouble enough without the honesty of Professor Raimi. A plain acknowledgement of irreconcilable differences is the truth of Lebanon today. Honesty? -- nobody there is less than honest, but is either side actually adopting the "heritage" so freely offered by the other? It doesn't work, it is poor policy, it is not useful.
Irrational as it might seem to those who can choose their own heritage from the entire range of history, it is not until a people -- a race, a sex, a city, a language group -- feels that it has a proud heritage "of its own," that it will, like Professor Raimi, feel free to borrow Abraham Lincoln and Shakespeare too. Yes, it's nonsense; yes, that Black freshman is no more the author of Native Son than Raimi is of The Gettysburg Address; but until that Black freshman feels in his bones that people like himself (whatever "like me" means in his yet-unformed mind) have written books and speeches admired the world around, he will never join Professor Raimi, except in battle.
Rebuttal by Professor Raimi
Mr. Calabrese begins his argument by reviewing mine, quite fairly, and even goes on to say that it "cannot be faulted" from a logical point of view. If there is any error in it, then, it must be in its hypotheses; and possibly in some badly drawn corollaries. I cannot find any complaint about the hypotheses, however, so that all there is to look for is in the corollaries, especially as regards public policy.
That is, Professor Calabrese agrees with me in the proposition that merit, as such, can only be individual, and that nobody is entitled to feel proud in the accomplishment of another, be that other a literal ancestor or not, unless he has somehow himself shared in that accomplishment. Professor Calabrese disagrees, however, in the political and educational corollaries I draw: Where I would keep to the literal truth in awarding historical merit, and assigning historical importance, and in the assessment of the values of art and science, and in the description of our present society and its problems and its values, without regard to the possible chauvinism of the audience, the students in school and college, the voters in an election, and the spectators of our courts and sports -- there Professor Calabrese would soften the impact of truth on the possibly irrational audience by shading the details here and there, as an usher in a burning theater might do when quietly telling the patrons to walk patiently to the nearest exit, minimizing -- one might even say falsifying -- the genuine danger, for fear of the greater danger of irrational panic.
He even quotes Benjamin Franklin against my thesis, saying that as a diplomat Franklin did not offer his motto as invariable, or even quite meaning what it said. That is, he claims that Franklin was so enchanted with the paradox of virtue's being good policy as well that he (Franklin) overstated the matter. He only meant to say, according to Mr. Calabrese, something like "Be practical; keep it simple." But I doubt that. I continue to believe that Franklin meant no more and no less than that honesty is the best policy. In any case, I subscribe to that policy.
The major part of the Calabrese argument is actually ad hominem. He says, in effect, that it is easy for a Raimi to talk as he does, because Raimi already has a proud heritage by the usual, non-utopian standards of the common man, and can with comfort behave as if "all that" were nonsense. That I would feel different if I were Black, for example, or female. Those already privileged can always make the grand gesture. As Anatole France wrote, in an often quoted irony, "The Law in its majesty forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges." As if to say the Law only pretends to treat all persons equally, but in fact weighs most heavily on those who are not writing it, or earning their living by its interpretation. Daumier too could and did mock the Law, in his case by merely depicting some of its practitioners -- probably accurately for all I know.
But I must reply that these are not arguments. If a rich man tells me that two plus two are four, and if I know moreover that it is convenient for him to believe so, and that he earns a lot of money through use of knowledge of this sort; and if I then am faced with a poor illiterate first-grader with no father and a drunken tyrant for a mother, who guesses that the sum is five, not four; shall I from compassion, or with the hope that the kindness I offer is only temporary, confirm him in his belief? And when the rich man protests that this ragged urchin is in error, shall I then comment ironically on how easy it is for him to take a high tone about truth?
Professor Calabrese's other argument is more practical, and doesn't depend for its force on appeal to the shame we of the privileged classes ought to feel, or can be made to feel, for our own good fortune. It says that the world is visibly at war in its every corner, between Flamand and Walloon, Moslem and Jew, Shiite and Sunnite, Basque and Castilian; and that this state of warfare is not alleviated by the trumpeting of such truths as that the great scientific revolution of the 17th Century, by which modern civilization was put on its present path, was accomplished by a handful of Europeans, white, male, and Christian. And that the American Constitution was written by a similar group. And so on.
The result of an education of this sort, he says, is anger. Until that student can "feel in his bones" that he is connected with all this history, he will never join me "except in battle." Therefore we must provide that which will enter his bones in salubrious quantity, in a healing and pacifying dose, as it were, even if we have to invent somewhat.
There is arrogance in this point of view: We have to invent a black heritage? We have to change the curriculum, and the list of great philosophers, so that he will feel better about himself? No; that is not, for example, what was done for me. Professor Calabrese mentions the lessons of Jewish pride that I was taught, he thinks, before I grew comfortable enough not to need them; should not "we" provide the same for the Black, the American Indian, the woman?
I say, "Why we?" Even if I admit the usefulness of my early training in unworthy pride (which I do not), it was not the public schools, and it was not the Presidential proclamations of national holidays, and it was not the falsification of encyclopedia judgments, that did it for me. If in my childhood I took comfort in the notion that Einstein was a Jew, it was not because the school I went to made a point of it, or because President Roosevelt proclaimed Einstein's birthday a national holiday.
To the contrary, in the general American culture of that time the name of Einstein was associated with those of Newton and Archimedes, and not with Moses and Maimonides, and that was as it should be. If there are in my town those of Chinese origin who wish to celebrate Confucius and teach their children what he said and did, I have no objection; and for college students it is really quite important that they understand the place Confucius plays in the Eastern consciousness, whether they themselves are of Chinese origin or not; but I must say that Confucius had little to do with the scientific revolution or the American Constitution, both of which are matters of a higher priority in the general education of American children. "We" don't have to invent a place for Confucius that isn't there; we need only tell the truth, in the scale of judgment we use in assigning priority to other educational matters. For the rest, those who think they have a more important place for Confucius than our particular culture allows are entitled to place them as they like. The legislature and the school board don't have to do it.
What I wish the legislatures and school boards would do, is pay less attention to the children's souls and more to their minds. Ethnic glories, pride, uniqueness and all that passes for advanced educational psychology is really only a hindrance to education which should consist in, if one dare say it, reading, writing and arithmetic to begin with, and literature, history and science later on. Exercises in speech wouldn't hurt, too, English speech with a minimum of mumbling and "you know"s.
That the elementary texts should picture a typical American playground as containing boys and girls, blacks and whites, is not only desirable, but true. That they should picture Little Red Riding Hood as black or Oriental, however, is just silly; it should instead be made plain that Little Red Riding Hood is a folk tale of Central Europe, where the people were white, just as Uncle Remus was talking about blacks and not about King Arthur' knights. Literature must always be put into historical perspective, and when it is, there is no longer a problem of homogenization or false emphasis. To do this properly, alas, our cadre of teachers still needs education.
But too much is made of this sort of thing in school board debates; the major part of education should be mathematics, science, one or more foreign languages (and the grammar of our own), the structure of our government and economic system, and the techniques of writing and reading that everyone needs. It should also teach, by demanding it, responsibility, cleanliness and civility. For all the palaver about ethnocentrism, these things are ethnically neutral except as a bigoted teacher makes them otherwise.
Rebuttal by Professor Calabrese
Professor Raimi is a dreamer. Every educated person wants our schools to do what he says. The question is, what will they do? The McGuffey Readers are wonderful books, but there is not a school board in the country that has a ghost of a chance of adopting one.
Our cities have rotted, one out of four of our black young men is in jail or on probation, newborn babies are drug-addicted or ill with AIDS, schizophrenics and alcoholics lie in cardboard boxes on sidewalks, the television is filled with the sight and sounds of spattering brains and crashing helicopters, while the air is filled with rock music of ear-damaging volume.
Our schools are not disjoint from these sights, sounds and sicknesses. Professor Raimi in front of a Detroit classroom might well end up with a stab-wound. That would not be just, that would not be what he deserves, that would not be civil or legal; it would be mindless, malicious, murderous -- sure. But what in the Raimi program is going to stop it?
Like it or not, this is where we stand now. If we don't ease into a more peaceful new generation by taking account of the prejudices and misconceptions that divide the old, the division will not permit us to live at all.
Final Statement by Professor Raimi
Where there is war one must merely fight. It was not up to the School Boards of the State of New York to defeat Hitler and his Nazi youth. The answer to the kid with the knife in the classroom can only be police. Education is for the future, and to corrupt it in the mistaken notion that an "improved" version will end the degradation we see today is to make sure the future will call for even more such improvements, ad infinitum.
Ralph A. Raimi
(Very slightly revised 30 December 2004)