INSPIRED by the example of Stanford University, American colleges are rapidly getting rid of their required courses in the classics of Western civilization and instituting multicultural requirements which stress minority, non-Western, and third-world perspectives. This dramatic shift in what young people are taught has long-term implications for how well the new generation is prepared to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex and competitive society. Stanford in 1988 abolished its Western Civilization sequence in which all freshmen were exposed to such authors as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Freud, and replaced it with a new sequence called Cultures, Ideas, and Values, which balanced Western and non-Western texts. "Hamlet" and "The Prince" might still be assigned under the new program, but they would be supplemented by such works as "The Son of Old Man Hat" and "I, Rigoberta Menchu."
The new curricular trend on the American campus is illustrated by Mount Holyoke and Dartmouth College, where students must now take a course in third-world culture although there is no Western culture requirement. The University of Wisconsin recently instituted a mandatory non-Western and ethnic studies course, although students need not study European classics, American politics, or American history. Cleveland State University now requires at least one course dealing with non-European culture.
If pursued as a complement to studying the West, study of non-Western societies merits an important place in American education. By examining the achievements and failings of other cultures, students can better understand their own. The great works of other civilizations can help to broaden young minds and sharpen thinking. There are practical reasons, too, for Americans who will have to compete in a global economy to learn about the languages and cultures of non-European lands.
The problem is that American universities typically teach non-Western courses in a manner bearing little or no resemblance to the ideas most deeply cherished in those cultures. Instead, most American students receive a selective polemical interpretation of non-Western societies, one that reveals less about those places than about the ideological prejudices of those who manage multicultural education.
At Stanford, for example, one of the most highly touted of the new non-Western texts is "I, Rigoberta Menchu," the life story of a Guatemalan Indian woman as narrated to the feminist writer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. In the introduction, we learn from Burgos-Debray that Rigoberta "speaks for all the Indians of the American continent." Indeed, she represents oppressed people everywhere: "The voice of Rigoberta Menchu allows the defeated to speak."
So how did this authentic voice of oppression in Latin America link up with her translator? It turns out that they met in Paris, where Rigoberta and Burgos-Debray were both attending a socialist conference. Rigoberta's use of phrases such as "bourgeois youths" and "Molotov cocktail" don't sound like the usual vocabulary of an Indian peasant.
Suspicions that Rigoberta does not represent the third-world peasant population are reinforced by her chapter titled, "Rigoberta Renounces Marriage and Motherhood," a norm which her tribe could not have adopted and survived.
If Rigoberta doesn't represent the Mayan villagers of Latin America, whom does she represent? She represents a projection of Western radical and feminist views onto Latin Indian culture. Since the book recounts Rigoberta's sequential embrace of such causes as Marxism, feminism, and lesbian rights, she serves as a mouthpiece for a sophisticated Western critique of society, all the more useful because it issues from a seemingly authentic peasant source.
In a crucial passage in the book, Rigoberta is identified with quadruple oppression: she is a person of color, and thus a victim of racism; she is a woman, and thus a victim of sexism; she lives in Central America, which is a victim of European and American colonialism; and if this was not bad enough, she is an Indian, victimized by Latino culture within Central America.
Rigoberta's claim to fame, therefore, is not anything she did or wrote but her status as a consummate victim - she is the modern Saint Sebastian, pierced by the arrows of North American white male cruelty.
Multicultural curricula on many American campuses, not just Stanford, reflect this eclectic approach to the third world. One textbook widely assigned in such courses is "Multicultural Literacy," published by Graywolf Press in St. Paul, Minn. Unfortunately, the book devotes virtually no space to the philosophical, religious, and literary classics of China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Persia, the Arab world, Africa, or Latin America. Nor does it examine dramatic political changes that have brought non-Wester n cultures into new cooperation or confrontation with Western ideals. Instead, the book includes 13 protest essays such as Michele Wallace's autobiographical "Invisibility Blues" and Paula Gunn Allen's "Who Is Your Mother: The Red Roots of White Feminism."
"Multicultural Literacy" also asks students to familiarize themselves with a laundry list of indispensable third-world terms from "Abdul-Jabbar, ancestor worship, Arafat" to "wars of liberation, Wollstonecraft, Zimbabwe."
What this eccentric selection of a few hundred words reflects is nothing more than the limited grazings in third-world pastures of American intellectuals of a left-wing and feminist bent. The new multiculturalism promotes Western parochialism in the name of cosmopolitanism, and although it champions the cause of diversity, it leads to a form of intellectual conformity. Far from promoting global understanding, it promotes ignorance and the distortion of non-Western cultures.
TO understand why this happens, we must recognize that the impetus for multicultural change virtually always comes from a triangular alliance of student protesters, faculty advocates, and ideologically sympathetic university administrators, all committed to the civil rights, feminist, and homosexual rights struggles originating in the 1960s. For these activists, the purpose of studying other societies is to cherish them; to investigate alternatives to racist, sexist, and homophobic Western mores; to cel ebrate cultural relativism and pluralism.
But any search for superior alternatives to the West produces the alarming realization that, by and large, non-Western cultures, which continue to practice such traditions as the caste system, have no developed tradition of racial equality. Moreover, many of these cultures have deeply ingrained customs of male superiority, evident in such practices as dowry, foot-binding, wife-burning, and female genital mutilation. Homosexuality is regarded as a disorder or crime in many third-world countries; in China , for example, avowed homosexuals are subjected to shock treatment, which is credited by government officials with a "high cure rate."
Since the race and gender viewpoints of the advocates of multiculturalism find little support in other cultures, it seems reasonable to expect that these cultures would be roundly denounced as even more backward and retrograde than the West. But for political reasons this is totally unacceptable, since the developing world is viewed as suffering the same kind of oppression that blacks, Hispanics, women, and homosexuals suffer in America. It is crucial for campus activists to maintain victim solidarity.
AS a result, instead of being subjected to charges of misogyny and prejudice, non-Western cultures are ransacked to find "representative" figures who are congenial to the Western progressive agenda - then, like Rigoberta Menchu, they are triumphantly presented as the repressed voices of the third world, fit for the solemn admiration and emulation of American undergraduates.
If American universities are serious about teaching students about other countries, they should resist political pressures which seek nothing less than the institutionalization of a new form of Western cultural imperialism. Instead, universities should retain their core curriculums in Western classics, but expand them to teach students about the greatest works of other cultures: for example, selections from the "Upanishads" and "Ramayana," Sun Tzu's "Art of War," Confucius' "Analects," the "Koran," as well as contemporary novels such as V. S. Naipaul's "A House For Mr. Biswas," Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Labyrinth of Solitude," Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," and Naguib Mahfouz's "The Thief and the Dogs."
Authentic multicultural education would challenge the materialism of American students by exposing them to the spiritual claims of the East. It would teach the future leaders of this country something about the roots of East Asian capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism - two forces with which American business and culture will have to contend. Through a careful study of the contrasting principles embodied in Western and non-Western cultures, American students could find stronger rational and moral ground s for adopting the norms of other civilizations, or for affirming their own.