“He’s still European,” said the young man.
I fell silent for a moment—stunned.
The situation was this: I was at Providence College, where I had taught for 27 years, most of them happy. But the college had allowed its signature program, what had been a four semester, 20-credit course in the development of Western Civilization once required of all freshmen and sophomores, to be severely curtailed—shrunk in time and in the subjects we could cover. But that was not enough for professors who hated that there was such a course. One of them, who to my knowledge never sat in on a single class, likened it to “cultural genocide.”
So I wrote in a Catholic magazine to defend the course, and called out its critics for their incoherence. When you are teaching material spanning 4,000 years, four or five disciplines, and several continents, coming from about 20 different cultures, with literature written originally in Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Italian, English, French, Spanish, German, and any of a number of other languages for modern works, it is a little galling to hear that you are culturally “narrow,” and from people who teach only works written in English about what happened in New Jersey last week. About a hundred students responded with an angry public protest against me, spurred on by a couple of politically minded colleagues. The young man had taken part in it.
I sought him out to talk to him and to ask him to remain in our section of the course. I had no ill will against him. He was from Colombia, and was a native speaker of Spanish. Learning other languages is one of my happiest pastimes, and whenever I have a student from a part of the world where I’ve never been, I like to ask about what it is like to live there: the kinds of trees and grasses, the birds and wild animals, the plains and the mountains, the weather, the roads, the customs of the people. I have always been this way, and I take for granted that most people are the same, though maybe not with the passion for languages. So I told the student that we would be reading some of the literature of Spain’s golden age—Life is a Dream, by her greatest playwright, Pedro Calderon.
“He’s still European,” the student replied.
I could have shot back, “Listen, young man, Spanish is your native tongue, not mine, and if you’re not interested in the Shakespeare of your own language, so much the worse for you.” I didn’t, because I felt sorry for him. He was in chains.
It has been more than 500 years since the Spanish and the Portuguese settled in South America, sinners settling among sinners, building up cultures that blend the European and the native, so that Bogota is not like Barcelona, and Sao Paolo is not like Lisbon. The young man himself bore a name whose origin is Hebrew, but which was adopted into the languages of Europe, including Spanish. But he could take no delight in that blend. He had been taught to resent his cultural and linguistic origins, insofar as they came from Europe—or Asia and north Africa, for that matter, though he was hardly thinking about those places.
Who did it to him? In his case, I don’t know, but I do know that the like is happening all over the United States and Canada. Wherever political passions dominate in a school or a classroom, the freedom necessary for the mind to think and for the heart to love is burnt away. When everyone is shouting, where can you find the spiritual silence to read a poem that has nothing to do with this bill or that senator or this protest or that criminal? Freedom implies an ease in the soul, a willingness to give yourself to what is good or beautiful, or to accept it gracefully from wherever it comes. We are robbing young people of that freedom. Our schools should be places where you learn what is not of immediate political or economic use. Instead we are turning them into political factories, with great heat and noise. We bind young people to the piece-work of hatred. Wrath is its own reward.
What is the result?
Imagine that you are on the streets of Florence, and the doors of the Uffizi are open. Usually, the line is long to get into the place, but today you can walk right in. You can behold some of the most wondrous works of art ever produced by human hands, sculptures and paintings, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, neoclassical, Romantic, modern, and in a building that is itself an architectural masterpiece. You can come within an arm’s length of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. But you sneer, “Europeans,” or, if you are a feminist, “Men,” and you refuse to go in. You are not free.
Such slavery is not born but taught. Imagine being a Florentine, and refusing to look at a painting by Titian, because the artist came from Venice. Imagine plugging your ears with wax, because the orchestra has begun to play the Humming Chorus from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and you are not Italian. This sort of thing demands an explanation. It is one thing to be born crippled. But if I see a whole land full of people stomping around on one leg and a cane, I may well ask, “What happened?”
And that is what I do ask.