Black Teachers for Black Studies? A Philosophical Critique of Multiculturalist Pedagogy

Article excerpt

On a recent TV talk show, one discussant said that only black people are competent to teach the history of black people. His displays of contempt for his opponent suggested that he thought his proposition beyond reasonable dispute. Why did he think so? Because, he said, only a black person knows the pain that black people have suffered. Variants on this argument--I call it the "argument from black pain"--are the foundation stones of the "multiculturalism" that is currently regnant in our centers of learning, where it now counts as axiomatic that only women are qualified to teach about women, only homosexuals about homosexuals, only Hispanics about Hispanics, and so on. Why do multiculturalists think so? Because, it is said, only a person of kind and condition X can have the experiences of a person or peoples of kind and condition X.

Anyone who has recently spent time in a university knows what this line of thinking has wrought. Multiculturalism has Balkanized our campuses, producing mutually antagonistic ghettoes of blacks, Hispanics, and other groups. Having chosen segregation from their fellow students, these groups contribute to the common culture only an angry sense of alienation and wounded hostility--an attitude that precludes not just friendship but even day-to-day fellowship with others, despite what you may have been told to the contrary. Thus, "minorities" admitted to the university on the basis of separate standards go through separate orientations, live in separate dorms, eat in separate areas of the cafeteria, enroll in separate courses, join separate social clubs, attend separate graduation ceremonies, and go their separate ways afterward. Thus, the Office of Student Life instructs blacks, Hispanics, females, and Native Americans about their special rights and warns white males of their special duties. Thus, feminists and blacks make anonymous complaints to the Office for Sexual and Racial Harassment regarding the "insensitivity" of their white male professors, who, being deemed insufficiently sympathetic to their way of thinking, are compelled to attend Chinese communist--style reeducation camps euphemistically described as workshops. Thus, homosexuals have gay-day parades not as pleas for tolerance or expressions of amity but as aggressive gestures of disdain for more conventional sexual behavior and for those who prefer it. And so on. Demonstrations on behalf of peace are common on today's campuses, but they occur in an atmosphere of tension and conflict. Civility has become a thing of the past.

The Argument Proves Too Much

When you consider how far these developments have gone, any attempt to counter them may amount to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Now that the issue has reached the talk shows, however, perhaps we should begin to point out the obvious--that the argument from black pain proves too much, even for multiculturalists. If it were sound, nobody could teach anybody else's history because no person has lived another person's life. Thus, nobody presently alive could teach the history of ancient Greece or Rome, all of whose citizens have been dead for some two millennia. Similarly, nobody we know could teach the history of monarchy in France because nobody we know has ever been a monarch in France. And, to come closer to the issue at hand, nobody could teach the history of slavery in antebellum America because no living person was a slave in that era. If the argument from black pain proves that whites cannot teach black history, it is because it proves that nobody, including blacks, can teach black history--hardly the desired conclusion.

The argument has this untenable implication because it is based on a false principle. If it is necessary to be an X in order to teach about an X, an African cannot inform us about a European, and a European cannot teach us about an Asian. In fact, one Asian, European, or African cannot teach us about another. …