The Question of Universals

Our individual/cultural stories and values may not be universal, but I believe many of our experiences as human beings certainly are.  We may interpret and evaluate these experiences through various lenses, but phenomenologically they are the same. Appreciating the commonality of the joys and sufferings we experience as human beings is the very definition of empathy, and no person-centered classroom can function without it.  It constitutes the very foundation for the way I choose to relate to my students and colleagues.  Thus, the question of universals, for me, is not a mere exercise in philosophy.  It is a mission.

It is unfortunate that this question is often left to the abstract debates of philosophers and theorists in academic circles, when it needs more urgently to make an appearance in our daily lives as educators if we are to respond authentically to the needs of our students.  As long as this question remains sequestered among the individuals in these contentious realms and as long as each side refuses to acknowledge at least some of the thoughtful tenets of its opponents, a continued stalemate is all but to be expected.  As I briefly explore the arguments surrounding the question of universals, I would like to state my strong conviction that, in the absence of a resolution, we are continuing to banish our students and educators to school cultures which lack empathy, kinship and meaning –a tragedy which trammels our common desire to provide an education where intellectual challenge, innovation, and thoughtfulness are the norm.

In Multicultural Education: Transforming Knowledge & Action, Banks & Banks (1996) argue that the problem with the Western educational paradigm is that it assumes that its accumulated stories, knowledge, values and ideals are impartial, neutral and objective; and, most importantly, that its principles are universal to all human beings.  They contend that a transformative education must include the perspectives and stories of all groups if our nation is to find a common national identity among its diverse citizens. (Banks & Banks, 1996)  While I am sympathetic to the aims of the multicultural movement, particularly its mission to dissolve the iron grip of the meta-narrative on our nation’s curriculum, I strongly disagree with the position that all knowledge is of a “partial nature.” (C. E. McGee Banks, 1996, p. 51) This position itself reflects an obvious partiality -even prejudice- and if we take it as true, not only do we question all knowledge, but we reject the possibility that the experiences, knowledge, and truths of others could ever be true for us. This ideological standpoint sets up a situation where empathy and mutual understanding cannot be possible and sets the stage for “a society that is confused and contentious” and which “cannot look to its schools to straighten things out, for the schools will reflect the same confusion and contention” (Ravitch, 1981, p. 201).  I believe this idea continues to draw a permanent and ugly divide between those who seek a just society and those who seek to maintain the status quo.  It is no wonder that the traditionalists hesitate to engage in dialogue with the multiculturalists when the latter refuses to acknowledge that which binds us –the universal truth of our common humanity.

The result of this refusal and its concomitant stalemate is the continued presence of a deadening curriculum for many in our urban schools, save for the fortunate few who have had the good fortune to take an elective specializing in feminist literature or in the particular history of a marginalized group.  But this is fortunate only in a limited sense for a limited few.  Here, I agree with Ravitch’s contention that we have permitted “knowledge to be fragmented… by serving it up cafeteria-style” (Ravitch, 1981, p. 206). It should be easy to see that a society in which knowledge is fragmented becomes a society which is itself fragmented.

This fragmentation is partly due to our hesitation to acknowledge the inner life of the human being, an acknowledgment which immediately asks us to consider whether knowledge or truth can ever be anything other than subjective.  It seems that the Social Re-constructionist’s answer to the question is “no.”  I have always felt that this penchant for undermining all claims has contributed more to the impasse than the traditionalists’ fierce and romantic attachment to their cultural heritage.  I understand the importance of de-constructing supposed knowledge, especially knowledge that is propagated by those who are privileged by its propagation, but I have never agreed with the de-constructionist notion that absolutely nothing can be true outside an individual’s subjective interpretation.  While the canon’s greatest defender, Harold Bloom (1992), concedes “the accurate enough realization that canons always do indirectly serve the social and political, and indeed the spiritual, concerns and aims of the wealthier classes of each generation of Western society” (p. 31) I am inclined to agree with his cry that “we are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice” (Bloom, 1992, p. 33).   I agree, not so much with the idea that one group should set a standard for the rest, but that in our pursuit of equality, we rush to invalidate the possible universal truths that have been expressed in Western literature and those discovered within the Western social sciences.  I have found many of the discoveries in the social sciences to be poignant and useful, particularly in the area of psychology (regardless of the supposedly limited scope of its research).

The debate regarding the question of universals has often been limited to the political aspects of power, economy and culture.  But, if we wish to bridge our many divides and to construct a more just society, we need to include all possible dimensions of human experience.  For the traditionalists, this means we need to include the recognition and the empathic understanding of the particular barriers to a fulfilled life that are experienced in very specific ways by people who are marginalized in very specific ways.  For the Social Re-constructionists, it might mean a re-examination of the belief that nothing can be universally true.  This will only be possible, of course, if we consider the elements of human experience that lie beneath our subjective interpretation and evaluation.

We rarely contemplate the phenomenological and ontological experiences of human life, because we cannot present quantifiable evidence for our findings, and thus, we often set these possibilities aside in the hopes that we can make other, more cogent arguments.  It may also be true that to cede ground on the question of the universal aspects of human life would lend itself to the perpetuation of the status quo.  If we concede, for example, that Western literature can contain some universal truths about human nature, we might fail to convince the traditionalists of the need to open up the Western Canon to include the works of those outside the dominant culture.  Thus, we continue to rely on the meta-narrative argument.  This reliance is understandable.  After all, there are many voices which continue to promote the meta-narrative, insisting that our “schools are responsible…for preserving a sense of the past…” and decrying “the diminution and degradation of the common culture” (Ravitch, 1981, p. 206).

In summary, each side believes it argues in good faith and that it holds the common good close at heart in its quest to prevail.  It is my view that they both fall short in their quest. The traditionalist fails to consider the complex social reality that actually exists, and thus, continues to shout down the voiceless by perpetuating a self-comforting, illusory story.  The Social Re-Constructionist, on the other hand, obfuscates the issue by equating the hegemony of the dominant culture’s claim of universal representation within the realms of history and culture to the substance and possible legitimacy of the insights, experiences and discoveries of some of its heroes, villains, scientists and philosophers.  This is a tragedy, for some of these truths may indeed be common to us all.

A Philosophy of Life