A primary purpose for our events here at Cedar Classical Academy is to welcome people with different views to the table to continue what Mortimer Adler calls The Great Conversation. Our friend Dr. Peter Vande Brake spoke on classical education in an urban context at our May 10 Academy Dinner. Here, our friend Dr. David Shane responds.
I was one of those in attendance for the delightful and encouraging May 10 Academy Dinner featuring keynote speaker Dr. Peter Vande Brake of The Potter’s House in Grand Rapids. He spoke on the work of classical education in an urban environment and had many valuable things to say, especially concerning the need to be conscious of the practical needs urban students may have. However, I was rather disquieted by some of his comments related to race. After pondering whether perhaps I should just bite my tongue, I eventually decided that, as someone with years in the secular academy now who has seen where these ideas lead, I should say something. So, I wrote a little email to Mr. Hummel, and he inquired if I might be able to expand my thoughts into a longer response.
A widespread problem in the secular academy today is that we have focused so much on difference, and on celebrating differences, that we are effectively forgetting that our shared humanity means that what we have in common is more significant than what divides us. This is one way (along with the related infiltration of critical theory into every corner of the academy) to understand why self-chosen segregation of various sorts is coming into style, and also helps explain protests that want to expel classical works from the educational curriculum: “White men wrote those works,” goes the argument, “so what could they have to say to me or to my students?” But that is a sad mindset. They have something to say to you because they were human, and you are human, and they thought well about what it means to be a human.
Furthermore, attempts to remove works from the curriculum are an extreme manifestation of a “racial lens” that is now pervasive. A related problem (on display in Dr. Vande Brake’s talk) is the use of race as a proxy for the cultural differences we often really have in mind (when we are discussing urban students, for example), which can easily send the dangerous message that skin color should determine social behavior. Although this might seem like a harmless verbal or written shortcut, it can muddle the thinking of those who use or hear it. I recall one meeting at Lansing Community College where another faculty member expressed her inability to comprehend why a certain rural school district in the area had much better outcomes for African-American students than a nearby urban district. Now from my perspective, I was thinking “I don’t know the data in detail, but it is likely there are many differences between an urban and a rural district, cultural differences, perhaps differences in parental involvement, and so on – so why would you think the outcomes would be the same?” But from her perspective, race was such an overriding lens though which to understand human activity that she could not consider alternative explanations.
At the Academy Dinner, Dr. Vande Brake certainly did not suggest throwing works out of the curriculum! He did, however, highlight the importance of a racially diverse faculty for a racially diverse student body which, to me, seems like a softer manifestation of the same way of thinking. “People need role models who look like them,” he said, and there is something very natural about thinking that way. But rather than catering to that natural way of thinking, the thing to do is to drag people out of it, making them realize that our common humanity is more important. Now, it could be argued that while common humanity is a desired outcome, it would do harm in the meantime to teach children (who are not yet mature enough to advance beyond this natural way of thinking) to ignore to the race of their role models. But Dr. Vande Brake did not clarify his statement in this way. Students need excellent teachers; they do not need teachers who look like them. Yet, “diversity” sometimes really does trump “excellence” as a focus in academia today. Coincidentally, as I type this, four administrators are suing the New York City school system with the claim that they were demoted because of their race: “Decisions are being made because DOE leadership believes that skin color plays a role in how to get equity – that white people can’t convey the message.” The trendy racial identitarianism of the secular academy is a recipe for endless conflict. We would do well not to import it into our own thinking or institutions.
Topics like “diversity” generally fit under a piece of advice I think the Church and Christian organizations need to hear often in our day, and it is this: Understand, brothers and sisters, that the language of the world is loaded with all manner of assumptions and connotations, many of which we should not be endorsing. So, we have two options. If we believe the language is so useful that we really do need to use it, then we need to be very clear about what we do mean and what we do not mean, recognizing that people are bringing a lot of interpretive baggage to the table. Or, usually a better option I think, we should find some other words to use to say what we want to say, words that allow us to speak our thoughts directly, without so much of the interpretation already captured by the dominant culture.
Humans of all colors are deep, thinking, complex, made-in-the-image-of-God creatures. Our overall response should be to adopt a serious posture that respects them as such, a posture that doesn’t reduce them (either intentionally or unintentionally) to secondary characteristics like race. This mindset also allows us to approach great historical works to extract from them what is good and true without great concern over how much the identity of the author might overlap with our own. That leads to greater social harmony as it equips us with a perspective on human life that is wider because it is deeper. One of my Geography colleagues at LCC, who has traveled the world, has told me that the big lesson he tries to impart to his classes is that “people everywhere are the same.” Apprehending this statement, applied to people across time as well as space, can be one of the positive outcomes of a good education.
Dr. David Shane, a board member for Cedar Classical Academy, teaches Physics at Lansing Community College.