It is the end of the school year in my neck of New Jersey and it is time for teachers to start packing up their rooms for the summer. I am currently substituting for a third grade teacher who went out on a leave of absence and was given the task of keeping 20 third graders engaged as school ends and packing up the room. Along the way, I came about the seldom-used social studies books and in some free time thumbed my way through it.
The book is complete with knowledge of cultures other than Western and this got me to thinking: no wonder students these days are lagging behind our international counterparts in so many areas other than training to become social justice warriors. Have we so evolved to the point that we now show a healthy disrespect for the very culture and history that brought us to this point?
Western culture brought us the great advances which many take advantage of today: rationalism, the search for truth, the rule of law and equality before the law, freedom of conscience and speech and expression, liberal democracy AND self-criticism. Unfortunately, modern education focuses too much on that last great achievement to the ignorance of the others.
Hand-wringing, excuse-making and rewriting of history cannot erase the immutable truth that Western culture is the zenith of human civilization. The major drawback is that propensity towards self-criticism to the point of rejection. Bertrand Russel described it as “liberating doubt,” but it was the impetus that spurred the great advances of Western culture. If the great scientists like Da Vinci and Copernicus had not had doubts, would there be science today? Or would civilization be like extreme Islam today- subject to Sharia law where everything is so because of a book written centuries ago?
Ironically, the notion of cultural relativism is unique to Western culture. You will not find it in Chinese, Japanese, and especially Islamic culture. They may adopt some aspects of Western culture like capitalism, but they view their cultures as unique and therefore superior. In fact, many of these countries stress the superiority of their culture over others in their educational programs.
Yet everywhere that Western culture has been adopted to some degree- Japan, India, South Korea- it has lifted millions out of poverty. Can we say the same about Islamic culture where some of the poorest countries in the world exist? Lest we forget, the protesters in Tiammenen Square carried a replica of the Statue of Liberty, not the likeness of Buddha or Confucius. If you go to any school in China, you will not find a teacher instructing students about cultural relativism and are likely to find them teaching students about the superiority of China over the United States.
A very good friend of mine visited India a few years back to study, under a grant, schools in that country. Whether in a major city or in an outside classroom in the foothills of the Himalayas, he was struck with two facts: the rigid discipline and the teachers stressing the uniqueness and superiority of Indian culture. One will not find that in any public school in the United States.
We live in an age of diversity worship where all cultures are considered equal. Many claim there are no objective standards to determine the superiority of one culture over another. To do so or assert such will bring about charges of ethnocentrism.
There are three objective measures starting with reason. The Greeks were the first but unfortunately, history had to suffer a Dark Ages. But, the Renaissance is something unique to Western culture. Islam is still awaiting their renaissance. Instead, they are mired in mysticism and faith and dogma. It was the 18th century and the Age of Enlightenment that laid the precursor to the longest lasting constitutional democracy in world history- us. As one philosopher once said regarding the Age of Enlightenment, “For the first time in history, an authentic respect for reason became the mark of an entire culture.”
It was the Renaissance and its progeny that created the great works of science and technology. Islam? They gave us the zero.
A second defining objective measure is individual rights. It was John Locke, not Muhammed or Confucius or Buddha or any other Eastern construct- that informed us that governments exist to protect individuals, not the other way around. While there were some terrible mistakes made along the way, the core principles of individual rights and dignity won the day. Two such examples are slavery and fascism. But, Western culture- spurred by basic principles of human rights- corrected those mistakes.
Slavery, which originated way before the Greeks among so-called advanced Eastern cultures, still exists in non-Western cultures. And what can be more fascist than the theological regimes of Iran and other Islamic countries?
The third objective measure is science and technology and here the West has an undisputed advantage. The concept of individual rights and reason freed the Western mind from the “tyranny of religious dogma.” Men and women of the West created an endless series of technological achievements. They engaged in large-scale production which created wealth which spurred further research and new and better products. Automobiles replaced horses, railroads replaced foot paths and electricity replaced the candle.
These achievements of Western culture have, in a relatively short time span, created unprecedented levels of freedom, wealth, health, comfort and life expectancy that only other cultures can dream about. It is in Eastern and African cultures where these core values are absent that we see the greatest levels of poverty, the lowest life expectancy, famines and an inability to respond to natural disasters. They are the homes of despotic dictators.
Some claim that these cultures are the very ones that live in harmony with nature the most. That is rubbish. They are the victims of nature and most prone to natural and man-made disasters if a dictator does not kill them first. Within a decade of a major natural disaster in the United States, nary a sign of that disaster remains while it takes a generation or two for a foreign culture to overcome the same.
It is not ethnocentric prejudice that makes Western culture superior; it is objective fact. It is why people die to reach the shores of the United States. But, Western culture and civilization is not fully secure. It is under attack by Islamic religious fanatics and dictators.
Most shamefully, it is under attack from “intellectuals” from within who would rather spend three weeks discussing the Trail of Tears or dedicate a whole month to slavery and two days to American inventors. Reason is denounced in the name of skepticism and relativism. Rights have been replaced by special entitlements. Progress has been replaced by radical environmentalism.
The third grade class I am teaching won a district-wide contest called “Bison Buddy” which teaches environmental awareness. Twenty students assured me that global climate change was a bad thing and that humans were the number one cause of it. They were surprised- as were other teachers- to discover that cow farts produce the most greenhouse gases.
In some ways, schools are not houses of education which teach students values, reason and logic. They have become hotbeds of liberal indoctrination and skepticism and relativism. Gone are the days of teaching the classic stories of the Greeks or the literature of great authors and thinkers. They have been replaced by stories of some backwards subject in some shantytown village in Africa or Asia. Is this to what we should aspire?