Studying My Friends, 'Dead White Males'

04/27/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

My friends sometimes are surprised that I endorse the tradition of liberal arts education.

They ask why study the work of "dead white males." In our diverse democracy, that is a threshold query. The liberal arts cannot rightly be reduced to the phrase "dead white males." But even those themselves enthusiastic about the endeavor of reading Plato's Republic acknowledge the vulnerability.

Some have forgotten the influence of antiquity on our own Founders. Others have blamed the revival of sentiment for Athens, Sparta, and Rome for our own republic countenancing a racial version of chattel slavery worse than practices before the common era.

In replying, I could not improve on the words of W.E.B. DuBois. A "race man" through and through, among the founders of the NAACP, and the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University (the apocryphal story about which confirms as much his erudition as ego), he proclaimed, "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not."

DuBois pondered the meaning of hyphenated identity before the term was current. He was American and Black, talked about by others in his presence as the "Negro problem." Yet he would not have allowed anyone to mark anything worth thinking about as off-limits. He embraced the Western Canon, the Great Books, the cultural heritage others would have denied to him.

My acquaintances' concern is specific to people of color who believe in the importance of inclusion in higher education; it extends beyond the general concern about the value of higher education.

My parents were Asian immigrants who could access the American dream only by showing they could contribute to this economy. They had come as scholarship students, because that was the only means available to them. The support was offered to them for their dedication to technical fields. They understandably were not enamored of the reading of literature, not as a means of making a living to be sure.

For me, however, opportunity has come through words. Although I was a stereotypical nerd, with a stutter to boot, I have made my way by rhetoric. My living, which has not lacked in material terms, has been based on writing and speaking -- nothing else.

I realize that the "dead white males" shibboleth cannot be contested as shorthand. The demographic description is as accurate as such historical claims tend to be. A reading list in the liberal arts tradition consists for the most part of authors, artists, and scientists ("natural philosophers" in their day) who are deceased, Caucasian men, whether born in Europe or the Americas. (Even among dead white males, privilege is not conferred equally, nor are posthumous reputations all alike; some are forgotten over time. Thomas Carlyle, for example, has not much standing nowadays -- though, not coincidentally, he is recalled for his defense of slavery.)

The issue is whether the phenotype and the pattern are deemed intrinsic or dismissed as incidental -- if membership in a biologically determined community is an ideal and norm, explicit or implicit. It is not accidental anyway. There's the rub, as Hamlet would have said, to those who write terms papers analyzing his dithering. Martin Luther, from that same legacy of doubt cultivated at Wittenberg, would challenge us to interpret texts for ourselves.

An alternative is available to us, those of us who do not look like those who are numbered within the pantheon. It is not that the past controls the future, but the idealism that we write on a blank slate, at least one that can be erased, extended, and written over.

The "dead white males" happen to be who they were. They are of a time and a place. But they also offer to us what may be universal. That combination, grounding in a time and place with universal appeal, is a hallmark of the most profound intellectual accomplishments.

We wish to avoid "lives of quiet desperation," in the phrasing of another dead white male, Henry David Thoreau, whose individuality was heroic. Among the best means of doing so, available to any of us -- and all of us -- is by reading these works, interpreting them, even aspiring to add to them (knowing only posterity is entitled to admit us to any curriculum). Thoreau's mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, declared no less for the American Scholar, by insisting on independence from their European peers. Each era defines itself.

For that matter, it may be that the only means for the work of "dead white males" to flourish is if they are taken up by living black females, and everyone else who cares to join a most meaningful discussion. Regardless of who introduced a specific idea to our shared intellectual life, everyone who takes up the teaching and the study of the subjects is an equal in the conversation.

One of my favorite colleagues, an even more ardent proponent of the liberal arts, remarked that "dead white male" as a term of obloquy is "as ignorant as it is preposterous," an example of "late twentieth century mock-radical agitprop." He noted that many of the "dead white males" who are maligned were themselves members of persecuted minority groups, not only ethnic but also in terms of faith and sexual orientation. Among them were champions of equality and freedom, and, above all, the spirit and the power of open inquiry.

At college campuses across the country, undergraduates have conversations late into the night. Most places, they ask questions that undoubtedly are worth asking, and they offer answers that perhaps are worth offering. They have -- as I did -- that conceit of youth that their questions are original and their answers even more so. Each thought they have, they are the first to have had. These bull sessions should be encouraged. Conventional higher education might well be as much as about the socialization process, and the acquisition of a credential, as it is about the learning that occurs. Yet if the participants had available to them the dialogue that had preceded them, they would have so much of an advantage. We proceed by imitation and emulation, repeating what we have heard before we add our own unique contributions and departures.

Anyone who appreciates the development of human knowledge is compelled to acknowledge that the more one learns, the less one knows. A liberal arts education offers the optimism that the more one learns, the more one is capable of learning.