A Homer surnamed Simpson

31 Mar

Consider the following statement explaining the presumed alienation of pre-multiculturalism black students from the masterpieces of Western culture, an alienation she implies was corrected by ethnic-studies courses: “In short, for a black student being asked to study the great books was not like being asked to do so for a white student. For the latter, it was an initiation into the elite stratum of one’s own world (159)….” [By contrast,] the “price of admittance” to the great tradition required black students to “repudiate their origins and to avow the superior value of European civilization” (151).

These statements make sense only in terms of a simplistic racialist view of culture that sees it as somehow biologically linked to race. Consider all the identity-politics assumptions in Nussbaum’s statement, leaving aside the marvelous variety ignored by the catch-all phrase “great books,” and the implication that they are mere hosts for uniform totalizing ideologies. The first is that if you are white you immediately feel some mystic kinship with Homer and Shakespeare. Presumably, Caucasians have a “great books” gene that can overcome the limitations of economic class and ignorance. Maybe in Nussbaum’s privileged “elite stratum” reading Homer is an initiation into a world recognizable because one’s upbringing has been surrounded by the art and literature of high culture, but for many so-called “white” people who lack such cultural advantages, the only Homer they know is surnamed Simpson. Or does Nussbaum believe that a poor-white Appalachian by nature has some racial affinity with a Mediterranean Greek?

Bruce S. Thorton, “Cultivating Sophistry,” in Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), pp. 8-9.

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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Society


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