THE DEBATE ABOUT WESTERN CULTURE
Why Hispanics Are Not 'Politically Correct'

November 1995By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck, who is of German and English ancestry, is a librarian in Washington, D.C.

The Chicago Great Books list...illustrates rather well the tension between acculturation and the love of wisdom. Often this list is defended as embodying humankind's highest wisdom on the perennial questions. While this explains very well the inclusion of some authors, the tilt to North and West European and North American authors roughly halfway through the Great Books seems much better explained as a victory for acculturation over philosophy. These latter are the authors one needs to know in order to function in North American civilization.... For one like myself, who suspects that the more important an idea is, the more unlikely it will be that the Anglo-Saxon tradition has dealt adequately with it, it will be hard to be convinced that acculturation has not had its way with the love of wisdom. -- Glenn W. Olsen in Communio (Summer 1994)

The above statement about "the tilt to North and West European and North American authors" in the University of Chicago Great Books list has a much wider application than to that list alone. One finds the same situation in the curriculum of St. John's College, the first U.S. institution of higher education to institute a complete Great Books curriculum, as well as (one regrets to say) in the curriculum of the premier Catholic Great Books school, Thomas Aquinas College. But this "tilt" can also be found outside Great Books curricula; indeed, some such tilt is almost universal in U.S. higher education, causing us to have a distorted picture of our own heritage as well as revealing much about our Protestant and now secular national soul.

For the past several years a controversy has been raging in the U.S. over the place of Western culture in the college and university curriculum. Critics of what is called our traditional curriculum charge that it is culturally biased toward the West or even that it is racially biased toward the so-called white race. It is said to reflect a Western, capitalist, and masculine view of the world and to present only the tradition of the historically dominant group. The views and traditions of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and Hispanics, among others, are said to have been excluded. These critics maintain that not only must the works and ideas of such "marginalized" groups be read and discussed in universities, but the notion of Western culture as better or normative must be discarded. Now by no means would I endorse most of the premises and conclusions of these enemies of Western civilization, but to conclude that because they are mostly wrong therefore the traditional view is right would be simplistic. For this controversy gives us an opportunity to raise some questions about what sort of curriculum is being attacked and defended in the first place. Particularly is this so since many Hispanics have apparently been shanghaied into joining the movement demanding the removal of Western ideas and civilization from the curriculum. And of course the way they have been persuaded to join in such demands is that they were first convinced that they themselves are not a part of Western culture, that they are a non-Western minority. The fact that any sizeable number of Hispanics was so persuaded says more about our own image of Western civilization than it does about any gullibility on the part of Hispanics. For the proposition that Hispanics are a non-Western ethnic group is preposterous. That the very people who brought Western civilization to the Americas, who brought the Catholic faith, universities, and the study of scholastic philosophy, Renaissance and baroque music and architecture -- in short, the entire array of late medieval European culture -- that they should be widely held not to be Europeans and Westerners is absurd. Peru, Mexico, and Santo Domingo were thriving centers of Western civilization, with universities and printing presses, when Harvard was still an uncultivated field with no Europeans around at all. Nor can one take refuge in the notion that while Spaniards might be Westerners, Latin Americans are not, for only a most superficial view of Latin America fails to see in it Spanish culture, albeit transformed. "A glance...is enough to show that the unity of Spanish America is rooted in its common Spanishness," said Salvador de Madariaga.

How then can anyone maintain that Hispanics are not of the West? At least in part, the reason is the selectivity and one-sidedness in our own understanding of the West, and thus in our presentation of what the Western heritage is to our young. And this might lead us to question whether our curriculum really does give Western culture the pride of place that both its defenders and critics assume it does. In doing so we will discover that there is ample reason to accuse the current American college or university of selectivity in its coverage of the West, and of identifying our civilization with only a few European countries and a few European ideas. Moreover, we will discover that this selectivity is part of a fear and hatred of our own past, especially of our traditional Western religion, the Catholic faith.


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