Click to enlarge: application form to Elon College (1913). Image Source: Elon University via Chronicle for Higher Education.
For today, as classes start at universities across North America this week, see a college application from 1913 to Elon University, North Carolina, USA. It is only four pages long! The source is a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Those were the days when liberal arts were both progressive and considered a solid background for doing just about anything (including, unfortunately, dying in World War I). Post-2008-recession, critics consider the liberal arts to be politicized breeding grounds of the hopelessly underemployed, unemployed and unemployable. Today's defenders of the liberal arts insist that the arts and humanities teach their students critical thinking. Part of that critical thinking can extend to considering how progressive the new Millennium really is.
A friend, J., observed that at Elon University, "They didn't mention that, until 1963, only white people need apply!" He suggested that the progressive view now recognizes that the western-centric view of history - which this application embodies with its emphasis on classics - has given way to a broader, enlightened world history.
I agreed that this is the current prevailing view, although I feel it contains an anachronism. We now assume automatically that the western-centric vision is causally bound to racism, inequality, slavery, oppression, patriarchy. The notion that today's discipline of world history is more advanced than the previously western-centric, classics-focused liberal arts curriculum includes its own hubris-laden, anachronistic assumption about contemporary progress.
In 1913, people could not travel or communicate the way we can now. So why would we automatically expect people from that time to have the same broad global vision we do? Yes, it was an oppressive, unequal, patriarchal system. But at the time, wasn't the classics curriculum the founding source of liberal arts education? Wasn't that curriculum considered the epitome of progress in 1913?
One hundred years from now, what will people say about late 20th century and early 21st century liberal views of inclusion? Probably they will say that it was woefully benighted and reflective of its own time and place. We could equally say that today's world history discipline derives from perspectives informed by economic and political globalization, not the expansion of tolerance - even though it looks that way. Isn't it true that in today's globalized world, whose official creed is advanced progressive, tech-driven liberalism, there are more slaves now than at any time in history? And beyond that conventional definition of slavery, isn't technology not-so-quietly enslaving the entire plugged-in population? Bondage happens. That brutal reality - namely, that inequality, loss of freedom, vicious hatred, and violence are integral to the shiny, ultra-advanced globalized Millennium - breaks through heady tech dreams in unpleasant surprises and shocks.
I am not discussing this issue politically, in a dreary criticism of contemporary liberalism. Rather, I am suggesting that the historical perspective of the present suggests that the values we take for granted are not infallible measuring sticks of progress. Blind spots are everywhere: people in the present take their highest ideals for granted as the highest possible point of development, while passing judgement on the past to secure their logic.
In a different example, in libertarian and crypto-anarchistic tech circles right now, a lot of people presume that the nation state is obsolete, that state boundaries have to be done away with, that laws and governments are automatically totalitarian. While governments are doing really dodgy shit, it is not true that all current governments constitute police states by definition. That is a false reading from particular circumstances into a universal assumption of value.
By looking through the lens of global communication, online anti-statists presume that the Internet, which dominates their personal realities, is an infinite source of advanced political development and virtue. Like enlightened academic liberalism, online libertarian populism projects value from a local, present circumstance of connected elites onto the universal past and the future. Yet it is that very optimism which fatally blinds its adherents to actual realities and allows them to marginalize themselves, in the Balkanization of the Internet. Or, expecting the worse from the evil state apparatus, military-industrial complex, the Illuminati and a host of other New World Order enemies, they may not recognize that the true conveyors of totalitarianism are the Internet's ultra-simplification of language, the insistence on ever-briefer information that is always easier to understand than the data that preceded it, the mechanization of thought and behaviour, and self-censorship over complex ideas which don't fit conformist lines of reasoning, including the 'acceptable' radical ones.
One could argue that the seat of western power lies not in guns, or the economy and finance, or government and political intrigue, but in language. The Internet made English the world's lingua franca. That spread of the English language through mass global communication is a vehicle of power far greater than any media-orchestrated terror event or any traditional counter-movement against the globalization of Anglo culture. Yet the Internet carries with it the seeds for the debasement of its lingua franca. The English language is increasingly simplified and misused. And in the so-called Anglosphere, studies of classics, languages, literature and grammar are considered profitless. These are fatal flaws in power held by right of the explosion of global communications.