Preamble Instead of an Introduction
Last week saw something of a commotion in the classical Christian world of education. Jessica Hooten Wilson published an article, and her revised version can be found here. David Goodwin of ACCS responded with an article in The Federalist, which is here.
I was planning to respond to her article last Monday, and I had a first draft largely done, which was—truth be told—kind of zippy. But a Zoom meeting was arranged between Jessica, David, and me, and with some others helping out. I would be happy to give credit where it is due, but I don’t have permission yet to share their names. This is kind of important these days because it really is possible to get into trouble for even talking to me.
The center of David Goodwin’s published rejoinder had to do with Jessica’s argument that the canon of works studied in the classical Christian movement needs to be a lot more inclusive than it is. My response was going to focus on her first two paragraphs, which intimated that I was, if not a white supremacist, entirely too friendly to them.
That issue was successfully addressed (I thought) and Jessica offered to correct that section of her piece, along with a retraction, which she did. Unfortunately, something got lost in the communication between her and Current magazine, and the retraction made it sound like I had abandoned my racist views, which is quite different than my hot denial that I ever entertained any racist views. More on that bit of it down below.
But I want to note at the front end that Jessica apologized for the false information in the first part of her piece, and made a good faith effort to correct it. As she has apologized, and as I have accepted it, I consider that aspect of it closed and resolved. As I put it in an email to the participants in our Zoom meeting, I don’t think we made a first down, but I thought we gained seven yards.
But there are still some serious challenges.
In that meeting, I said something that I would like to use to frame my responses below. Our moderator helpfully stated that the classical Christian school movement is very large, and we have differences between denominations—ACCS and SCL representing two of the large ones. I agree with that—the pedagogical differences between Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and Wisdom and Eloquence would be an example.
But I countered with the example of Machen in Christianity and Liberalism, in which he said that liberalism was no denominational difference, but a distinct religion entirely. Following this analogy out, I would regard the woke religion to be a different faith entirely, and something that should not be treated as a denominational difference within the CCE movement, but rather as a cancer within the movement. I don’t want to figure out how to get along with commies in the classical Christian school movement—I want the commies out of the classical Christian school movement.
Back to Machen. What was he dealing with? Well, there were the orthodox believers, in his corner. There were the liberals, in the opposite corner. But then there was a great body of conservative believers in the middle who were more or less asleep at the switch. In other words, they were orthodox personally, but they did not see the dangers that Machen kept going on about. Thus when the liberals captured the Presbyterian Church, over eighty percent of the ministers were still conservatives. Out-maneuvered conservatives, but conservatives nonetheless.
So here is an application to the world of classical Christian education. There are the conservatives, there are the woke, and then there are those who for various reasons don’t see the harm in letting the woke frame the discourse for us. This latter group represents a denominational difference . . . but I do think it is an extremely hazardous one. In our conversation, Jessica denied being woke, and said that she spends much of her time in the medieval period, back when the woke population was pretty thin. She also made clear that she has no desire to rewrite the classical canon by herself. I am happy to take her at her word, and that’s all good so far as it goes. But the entire way her argument is framed (still) indicates that she is far more influenced by woke sensibilities than she knows.
So having gotten the explicit misunderstandings out of the way, we need to move on to this question of framing. Jessica has said that she has no problem with a straight up the middle disagreement with her views, and so here goes. The approach represented by this article is dangerous to the entire movement, and some of my reasons for thinking this are below.
What This Curriculum Needs . . .
The title of her article remains the same: “Is White Supremacy a Bug or a Feature of Classical Christian Education?” There are two reasons given for framing the question in this way. The first is the situation with Thomas Achord, a man who lost his job as a head of a classical school just as soon as his anonymous (and vile) Twitter account started to come out. In our Zoom meeting, we all agreed that we should not leave any room for that kind of thing. So far so good.
But the second bit of evidence she offers is the traditional content of the curriculum in classical Christian schools.
“We should peruse the authors of the works and, if applicable, the editors or introductory writers to ensure an assortment of voices . . . as well as an equality of both sexes. If we look at the table of contents of a textbook or a reading list for a semester and find not a single woman or person of color in that list, then that curriculum is misrepresenting the classical Christian tradition.”Wilson, “Is White Supremacy a Bug or a Feature of Classical Christian Education?”
Are we really going to go along with a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion approach to the great conversation? Will classical Christian schools start to tinker with the canon, incorporating additional writers in line with standards of inclusion that were just recently mandated by our woke arbiters outside the church within just the last few years? If I may venture into a bit of cultural appropriation, let me put on a sombrero and say this is no bueno.
Here is my basic concern about it. I believe that our etiolated generation is barely competent in the work of recovering the old canon. We are a bunch of Dufflepuds given the task of cataloging a great library. We almost take too much upon ourselves even to study the works handed down to us, and are we going to take up the task of a radical editing job?
I call it a radical editing job because an “equality of both sexes” approach is going to require a jettisoning of at least half of the current curriculum. This is a number of hours in the school day problem. Who are you going to drop? Are we going to gain Maya Angelou and lose Dante? Julian of Norwich for John of Damascus? Sappho for George Herbert? As I never tire of asking, by what standard?
The problem is not the inclusion of people who were not included before, including women. My problem is with why they are being included. I have no problem with the boundaries of the canon changing slowly, over time. But there are qualifications for being competent to do something like this. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was largely responsible for reintroducing Beowulf to the world, and we should all rejoice over the fact that the canon of the Western world, unlike the canon of Scripture, is not closed. But Tolkien was a fifty-pound brain with feet, and was someone in close communion with centuries. One of the qualifications ought to be a demonstrated independence of the fads and fashions of modern thought, and our generation has in no way demonstrated that kind of independence.
Such independence is not demonstrated when you call a list that you consider lopsided a name like “white supremacist,” which was in the title of Jessica’s piece. When you look at a line-up of authors in the curriculum, or speakers at a conference, and you there espy a row of dudes, even supposing a disagreement with that, why wouldn’t you say it is “too traditional,” or “not representative enough,” or “historically inaccurate?” Even supposing a desire to include some who had been left out, why the sweeping claim of misogyny?
This is what indicates the presence of the woke narrative. In the woke narrative, any form of inequality is equivalent to oppression. But this is critical theory, and is not the scriptural view.
We have broad scriptural reasons for rejecting any ethnic notions of supremacy, and many passages of Scripture on which to base such a repudiation. Misogyny would be the same kind of thing. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ did the church. Preach a sermon on misogyny, they asked, and multiple texts crowd to my mind. But suppose I was asked to show from Scripture how patriarchy is bad. Lot of texts come to mind, but they demolish the case instead of making it. And suppose further that I was asked to show how patriarchy is automatically misogynistic. I would be at a complete non plus. I wouldn’t know where to start.
This kind of arbitrary and facile equation (and it is arbitrary) is only possible when the skids have been previously treated with that woke axle grease, the extra slippery kind. There is no other way to get us there.
And The Metric Will Betray Us
If we have a responsibility to open up the canon of our curriculum in order to fix its Euro-centrism, or white supremacy, or patriarchy, and we can charge our editors with grievous offenses simply on the basis of the race and sex of the writers they collected, then what on earth are we going to do with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? I am detecting a distinct lack of feminine voices here.
Suppose you looked down the road and saw Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Thomas, and Matthew the publican, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him (Matthew 10:2–4). Having seen them all, would it be appropriate to label them as a band of patriarchal miscreants? Before they had even healed one leper?
In short, this methodology for righting the “misogyny” of the classical Christian school movement is a methodology that can be deployed elsewhere, and has been. It is being deployed in every direction these days. How many feminine voices are there in the 66 books of Scripture? I will grant you Hannah, Deborah, Huldah, the Magnificat, and a few other voices. How much is that? Ten pages?
An Optional Extra Credit Section
Now I know that there are some eager beaver students of the classical Christian school movement out there who never tire of reading up on how I, a leader in that movement, have accomplished something of a balancing act. On the one hand, I have a basic grasp of the issues surrounding the War Between the States, and then on the other, I have absolutely no patience with any kind of ethnic vainglory or malice. In the minds of all those catechized by the woke narrative of American history, this is not possible. So for those who are interested in completing this section of the test, please know that the extra credit you receive will be your very own accusations of racism.
For some folks, a mere defense of a “white supremacist” canon would be a defense of white supremacy. But this goes skipping, skipping, skipping over other things I have written on this very same subject. To try to label me a white supremacist is like that breakaway steal in a basketball game, where the player has the easiest of layups before him, and instead he tries to impress one of the prettier cheerleaders by dunking it, thereby sending the ball rocketing off the rim and into the stands.
But the reason I don’t mind all this is that it gives me the opportunity again to quote what Eugene Genovese said about my book on this very topic, Black & Tan. Genovese says some very kind things about me, and because I am only quoting him under duress and because I have to, it is not bragging—not even humble-bragging. I am completely in the clear, and have lost no treasure in Heaven.
“Douglas Wilson may not be a professional historian, as his detractors say, but he has a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine. Indeed, sad to say, his grasp is a great deal stronger than that of most professors of American history, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace our college classrooms. And the Reverend Mr. Wilson is a fighter, especially effective in defense of Christianity against those who try to turn Jesus’ way of salvation into pseudo-moralistic drivel.”
Eugene Genovese, cover blurb of Black & Tan
For those unfamiliar with him, Genovese was one of America’s premier historians on the subject of the antebellum South. Educators who want to come after me on this subject need to do better than drive-by snarkity. They should wonder why someone of Genovese’s stature would read that manuscript, make helpful editorial suggestions, and then provide a blurb like that. Why don’t they?
Because cancelling is easier than answering.