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Who wants a color-coordinated, cross-cultural core curriculum?

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the concept of a core curriculumn has sparked intense debate between liberals and conservatives. The focus of the argument is on DWEMs (Dead White European Males) and whether or not they should make up the core of a curriculum. Famous DWEMs include Plato, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Ludwig von Beethoven, William Blake, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, and Ernest Hemingway.

The curriculum revisionists want to "throw the rascals out," while the canon conservatives seek to "save the cultural heritage of Western civilization." Both of these opposing camps argue in extremes, with the revisionists calling the canon conservatives "fascists," "elitists" "racists," and "sexists," while the conservatives characterize the revisionists as latter-day hippies with Marxist leanings and nihilist inclinations.

All core curriculum proponents, liberal or conservative, have as a guiding principle a basic belief articulated in the 19th century by poet and social critic Matthew Arnold, who stated that education must consist of instruction in the "best that has been known and thought." The present debate is about what exactly constitutes this "best." In such books as The Devaluing of America by William J. Bennett (the former Secretary of Education and Drug Czar), historian Arthur Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America, and Dinesh Dsouza's Illiberal Education, the case is made for the classical curriculum that emphasizes Western civilization. Challenging this con-the classical curriculum that emphasizes Western civilization. Challenging this concept of the core curriculum are scholars such as Stanley Fish, the combative chairman of Duke University's English Department, who has engaged Dsouza in a series of debates. Fish's point is that the core proposed by the canon conservatives is too white, too male, too Western, and too highbrow.

In terms of scholarly research, there have been more than 500 articles published about the core curriculum since 1982. Much of this discussion has generated more heat than light, possibly because many of the opponents do not deal on a daily basis with the reality of curriculum revision in America in the 19%.

Horizontal integration

It is a cruel hoax to eliminate Western civilization from the education of America's most recent immigrants. Too often, professors and scholars, who themselves know the classics, choose to disparage them for, immediate political gain. The new immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and other places deserve to know the best that has been known and thought, and also need to be informed about the valuable insights of writers, artists, and scholars who are not part of the Western tradition. In order to analyze the best of the past and to prosper from the rich backgrounds of the recent immigrants, the principle of horizontal integration can be used to produce a color-coordinated, cross-cultural core curriculum.

In terms of constructing a core curriculum, it is wise to consider the advice of Ross Perot, who counsels that "we must reason together." Reasoning together means that revisionists must admit that Western civilization has a thing or two to offer to the present generation, and canon conservatives must own up to the fact that not all major writers are white, male, Western, and dead.

For example, romantic poet William Blake is considered by most literary scholars to be a major figure. In his introduction to The Portable Blake, literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote that "Ludwig von Beethoven and William Blake were alike in the quality of their personal force, their defiance of the age, and the fierce demands each has made on the human imagination." True enough, but both Beethoven and Blake are DWEMs, so the key is to find in Blake a "handle" that will allow for horizontal integration. The concept is that the teaching of Blake must focus on a principle or theme shared by non-Western and non-white writers. The syllabus thus moves horizontally to bring into the fold the non-traditional writers, and integration is achieved by revealing the similarities between the DWEM and those who followed him.

In the latter days of the 18th century, Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience, a series of verses containing many first-person poems about the initiation experience (the stages by which humans come to grips with the world around them). One, "The Chimney Sweeper," is a searing indictment of capitalism, with a particular focus on the odious practice of child labor. It clearly depicts the theme of the harshness of economic survival. In terms of teaching in a core curriculum, a professor just has to ask: "Was William Blake the only writer to consider the question of economic survival in an unjust society?" The answer, of course, is "No." The principle of horizontal integration allows for including in the core curriculum the short story "The Sky Is Gray," written in the 1970s by African-American author Ernest Gaines. This story complements Blakes poem by its examination of economic survival in the segregated America of 1940. Like Blake's poem, "The Sky Is Gray" is told by an innocent child. He describes the heroic struggle of his family, led by a single parent who is black, female, and works long hours as a sharecropper. For a multi-cultural audience of students, much is gained by the inclusion of a writer of color, for it at once lends status to the classic work of the DWEM while establishing the unique perspective of the African-American.

Even the most hard-boiled revisionist would be hard-pressed to advance the thesis that William Shakespeare is not worth teaching. His works are classified as comedies, histories, or tragedies, with the latter occupying center stage in terms of importance.

"King Lear," Shakespeare's classic tale of a tragically flawed king, has been echoed by an Asian filmmaker and a feminist novelist. In "Ran," Japanese director Akira Kurosawa set his version in 16th-century Japan, emphasizing the warrior/king aspect of Lear, and made the conflict over his inheritance a contest among three sons. In her book, A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley examines the legend from the point of view of two daughters and places the action in Iowa, with Lear as a farmer.

Another technique in the teaching of Shakespeare is to read a play via the soliloquies. For example, Hamlet's speeches reveal the innermost workings of his mind as he wrestles with suicide in the "Too too solid flesh" and "To be" soliloquies and with his flaw of indecision in "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I." Supplementing these subjective observations of a young man who is contemplating murder is the soliloquy of the evil King Claudius, who, in the "My offence is rank" speech, provides the audience with insights about the twisted logic of a murderer.

This use of subjective narratives to present a story also is developed by Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "Rashomon," written in the 1920s, but telling a timeless tale of desire and violence. Here, horizontal integration is used to focus on the literary technique of point of view. In his story, Akutagawa uses six narrators to describe a murder. Each speaker offers a different perspective, a technique that challenges the reader to assume the stance of a juror and evaluate the differing opinions as to who is the guilty party. "Rashomon" reveals how an author from a different culture employs the same literary techniques that were used by an acknowledged "great writer."

One final example of horizontal integration draws on the rich backgrounds of recent immigrants. In a "normal" core curriculum, it would not be unusual to teach the American novelist Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage. In addition to composing a classic novella which takes place during the Civil War, Crane wrote many short stories. One, "The Blue Hotel," is the adventure of a man known only as the "Swede" who visits a small, western town and becomes involved in gambling, leading to violence and, eventually, his death.

In a class composed largely of Caucasians, the themes of fear, violence, chance, and the frontier commonly are brought to the fore by the students. In a class composed of immigrants, however, the theme of discrimination assumes importance. These students have an instinctive identification with the dilemma of a stranger with an identifiable accent who tries to "fit into" the society of an alien world.

Completing the teaching of "The Blue Hotel" is Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Lack Club, which details the lives of four Chinese women and their relationships with their daughters as they try to become part of America while at the same time maintaining their identities. This theme of discrimination as it pertains to a stranger in a strange land also is developed by V.S. Naipaul in his novel, The Enigma of Arrival, which examines the life and times of an Indian born in the West Indies who comes to live in England. Also in this vein is Nadine Gordimer's short story, "A Chip of Ruby," about an Indian couple living in South Africa who become at odds as the wife becomes involved in a struggle for racial justice. The husband wants the approval of the ruling, white minority and is wilting to ignore injustice as a price to be paid for acceptance.

There are many other examples of how the principle of horizontal integration can produce a color-coordinated, cross-cultural core. William Faulkner's novels about the mythical Yoknapatawpha County of the deep South can be paired with R.K. Narayan's novels about the fictional country Malgudi, which illuminate life in South India. Hemingway's depictions of fives tom asunder by World War I can be compared with the keen observations of Hanan al-Shaykh in her novel The Story of Zahra, which focuses on the civil war in Lebanon.

Arnold had it right when he said that the aim of education is to inform students of the "best that has been known and thought." Using the principle of horizontal integration, professors can eschew the rancor over what constitutes the "best" by including in a core curriculum the contributions of men and women of color and by examining classic themes and artistic techniques as they have appeared in non-Western cultures.
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Author:Reeves, William J.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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