A Defense of Ethnic Studies (Sort of)

Relativism slakes the thirst for knowledge

We should study cultures other than the West, but not for the reason many students think.

The reason they give is we must be up-to-date. “[W]e are now two thousand years removed from the fall of Rome,” The Harvard Crimson opined, “and the academic occupations of modern scholars should necessarily be different from those of the ancients.” Harvard College agrees. Its website says, “The Program in General Education…[links] the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face.” Our task, it seems, is to make sense of the here and now.

My quibble with this attitude is it mistakes the here and now for the one and only. Despite air-conditioning and iPods, our academic objective remains the same: to answer the question, “How should I live?” When we force our curriculum to be up-to-date, we forget that this question is debatable.

A debatable question has alternative answers. Unfortunately, many students see just one: modernity. Sure, they read Aristotle, but they see him as a step in the march of progress, not as a destination. “[N]o serious conservative can compare the modern world to ancient times, or today’s America to that of the 1950s, and honestly long for a restoration,” Sam Barr wrote in The Harvard Independent. “There might be some good traditions that we ought to bring back…But an argument has to be made for each…Nothing is good just because it’s old.”

I agree with Barr, but with one addition: Nothing is good just because it is new, either. The proper judge of these competing answers is reason. Here, some students’ stomachs churn. If reason is to judge alternative lifestyles, then it will favor some over others. This approach sounds like Western philosophy. It sounds like Western imperialism. “There are good courses and bad courses in Western philosophy. In the past, some courses told you your country had all the answers and you should go fight in World War I,” Professor Werner Sollors, chair of the Standing Committee on Ethnic Studies, told me.


I share this worry. But the fact that people misused reason in the past should not prevent us from using it today. We already do. On the Voice’s blog, Noice, Kathleen French enumerated antiquity’s faults: “slavery…Women not being able to vote…Ruthless imperialism.” She judged antiquity to be inferior to modernity for the former failed to recognize humanity’s inherent freedom. She was correct, but she also made a judgment based on reason.

Such a judgment promotes studies of other cultures; it does not discourage them. For if all cultures are equally reasonable, why bother? “If you imagine that you live on a cultural island where everything that matters is going on, you don’t care much about the other islands,” Sollors said. Under chauvinism, you think your island is all there is. Under relativism, you know there are other islands, but you are blasé; you get as much sunlight as they do.

Modern scholars have the same goal as ancient philosophers: to find the good life. “All fields in the arts and sciences emerged from philosophy,” said Sollors. So students should remember the premise of philosophy: Our civilization is inadequate. Socrates, the first political philosopher, began his quest for the good life after the Delphic oracle declared him the wisest man on earth. According to the city’s religion, Socrates should have been satisfied; the all-knowing god had spoken. Yet he questioned this authority because he discovered that the people—and thus the gods they worshipped—were ignorant. His city did not have all the answers.

As students, we pick up where Socrates left off. We study other cultures because we know the West is inadequate. It does not have all the answers. Similarly, modernity does not have all the answers; it should justify its assumptions about humanity as much as antiquity. Modernity assumes that all lifestyles are equally reasonable so that people can live in peace. In that peace, each individual is free to seek the good life as he sees it.

Students—particularly those with a liberal education—also seek the good life. But they should know that their search requires them to question the very assumptions under which they live.

Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.