25 August 2021

Bill of/for Appropriation

These link sausages are entitled to the highest-quality condiments. Just ask them.

  • So, then, what should students learn? Well, perhaps the first thing they should learn is not to blithely accept Mr Montás's description of what the "core curriculum" at Columbia, or at any of the other high-falutin' schools that has an enforced core curriculum, consists of… because understanding the weaknesses in that core curriculum is at least as much about what it excludes as anything else. The shortest, snarkiest response to this kind of tunnel vision is to point out a great book that appears nowhere in any listing of Great Books: Newton's Principia Mathematica, without which true understanding of things like "optics and perspective" and "musical scales" (in the West) is not just incomplete — it's wrong, whether from an abstract view or in the chronological development.

    Which leads to the rest of the core curriculum — the part not just neglected, but implicitly rejected, in that essay. "Western Civilization" (whether at Columbia or anywhere else) is just part of the core curriculum. And other parts — the ones taught by guys in stained lab coats or chalk-impregnated corduroy (occasionally tweed) jackets with leather patches at the elbow — matter just as much: The science and math courses that are necessary to understand, or at least assimilate, change into the next fifty years of one's life from the perspective of an eighteen-year-old freshman. This is reinforced by the parts usually taught by foreign grad students in their native tongues making a few bucks on the side — the mandatory "foreign language" components.

    There's a more fundamental flaw to Montás's essay, though. "Western Civilization" (again, whether at Columbia or elsewhere) is taught at a level consistent with early participation in several different majors. Many math and science courses taken along with it, however, are not; and foreign language courses are a hodgepodge, both in terms of what languages are offered and whether majors are offered in those languages/cultures/literatures. The existence of all of those jokes about "physics for poets" in the absence of jokes about "poetry for physicists" among the courses fulfilling a basic requirement (and not elective credits, implicitly grade-inflated) should give one a great deal of pause. What understanding of "Western Civilization" can ignore technological advancement — especially in comparison to other civilizations with which it came in contact — as an underlying theme? More to the point, how can one justify carefully studying the development of poetic meter as society moved from oral to written literature (Beowulf to Shakespeare to Tennyson to Eliot) without equally carefully studying the development of distinctions among chemical substances (Aristotle to Paracelsus to Boyle to Koch, let alone the Aristotle-Bohr-quantum intertwined parallel thread)?

    None of which is to say that a "Western Civilization" course can't be a fundamental component of a good education, or that controversies over what is covered in it are either meaningless or essential. It is only to say that — contrary to the assumptions, tone, and conclusions of this essay — that course is peering at western civilization through a keyhole, and the whole point of a university/liberal arts education is to open the whole bloody door.

  • If a "Western Civilization" course doesn't involve inappropriate(?) cultural appropriation, I'm not sure what would. Consider the "overachieving" child of refugee-immigrants from Somalia or Syria or Vietnam sitting at the far end of row eleven. Yeah, the shy one taking extensive notes and only grudgingly participating in class discussion because her accent would be too out of place in a Disney movie or Disney+ live-action-for-teens show. (And those are… interesting… locii of cultural appropriation in themselves.) Notwithstanding her skin color, or her religious garb, or the olfactory striking power of the homemade snacks in her backpack. And yet, she's being required to "assimilate 'murikanexceptionalist culture" (it's intellectually dishonest to call them "Western Civilization" when they essentially end consideration of Spain in 1648 and Italy in 1652, and the less said about parts never considered like pre-Luther organized opposition to the Catholic Church as anything other than political movements the better) in a way that sounds much more like "but this cultural appropriation is the good kind" than anything else.

    Cultural appropriation isn't just about English mugging other languages in dark alleys and going through their pockets for spare vocabulary (although that's certainly an example, he writes, while drinking his coffee sitting on a sofa with his feet on an ottoman and feeling no little schadenfreude whether in its native language or as modified in contemporary American English). It's also about who gets to decide not just what is acceptable, but what is true in the first instance. For, as that piece implicitly points out, some value of "true"… and some value of the context of that "true" — neither of which may be immediately apparent. The irony that analyzing either a personal story or a cultural artifact for "first instance" is itself a cultural appropriation is beginning a deep dive down the rabbit hole of reflexiveness, where all the rabbits are white. Or at least where all (or virtually all) of the authorities about "rabbitness" are. The further irony that sometimes appropriation out of context might be, well, appropriate (such as, say, a new artistic movement, exclusively reserved to Central Americans, that draws on Aztec artistic influences without including any cannibalism or slavery) is much too complex a consideration for a blawg in the first place.

  • A quick update on a culturally essential infrastructure project: The Wall should be, as of this morning, 1,64 kilometers long (compared to 150 meters for the Vietnam Wall) — a little over a mile. And the Orange One's check to retain the law firm necessary to obtain planning permissions bounced.

    Ooooooh, no. I think I just committed "cultural appropriation" by expressing that in scientifically accepted units instead of good 'murikan "English measurements" (that are seldom used in England any more — just look at any recipe in any periodical from Blighty!).