Unsettled in Seattle

Unsettled in Seattle

College protesters against Western Civilization miss the fact that diversity begins with knowing one’s own culture.

Protestors at Matteo Ricci College

Robert Royal
MONDAY, JUNE 6, 2016

Matteo Ricci may well have been the most interesting Westerner ever to have entered China. As a young Jesuit in the order’s early decades, he pursued the usual studies in philosophy and theology in Rome, but also had interests in mathematics and astronomy. The Counter-Reformation was at high tide in sixteenth-century Europe and the Jesuits had been founded in part to help advance it. But Ricci asked to be sent to the Far East. He spent three years in India and, before he even turned thirty, arrived at Macau. It took him twenty years of work inside China to become the first Westerner invited into Beijing’s Forbidden City. But during that time he learned to speak Chinese fluently (and compiled two Chinese-Portuguese dictionaries); came deeply to understand Chinese culture; made many friends among the country’s elite; and brought Confucianism and Catholicism into quite fruitful dialogue.

China was interesting mission territory. It had a sophisticated, ancient civilization, and men of learning were highly regarded there. Ricci impressed the mandarins by drawing maps of the world that indicated China’s true extent and position. (The Chinese had mostly been ethnocentric to that point, and thought their vast land virtually coterminous with the world.) He performed the usual tricks of trained cosmologists, such as predicting eclipses. And also astonished the Imperial court with great feats of memory thanks to mnemonic methods developed in medieval Europe. (You can find these in Jonathan Spence’s entertaining book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.) Still, he never lost sight of his main mission: evangelization, which he carried out slowly and meticulously and respectfully, finding openings for serious conversations and conversions in Chinese culture.

It’s a great shame, and injustice, to his memory, then, that the Matteo Ricci College at the Jesuit University of Seattle has recently been under fire from students for its emphasis on Western civilization – “too many dead white dudes” as one student put it. A common complaint at many institutions of higher learning today, even though it would be the rare observer who would find American college graduates suffering from a surfeit of narrowly Western studies. Further, Matteo Ricci College was set up specifically to offer an intensive program in the history of our civilization for those students who want it, and consider it a good foundation. There are other undergraduate colleges at the University of Seattle, presumably more like the grab-bag programs of most American colleges and universities, where a certain kind of student can study what he wants, which seems to be mostly himself.

The university administration is, at this point, going through the usual kabuki dance. Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., university president, has been talking about the importance of “listening” to student concerns – good up to a point, as Ricci himself would be the first to say. But deans are being threatened and demands being made about hiring minority faculty. And this story is already showing signs of ending the way so many others have in recent years. There will be committees set up to review curriculum and, perhaps without expressly saying so, there will be a kind of tacit repentance – even though deep acquaintance Western philosophy and theology, science and history, are what enabled Matteo Ricci really to appreciate cultures outside the West.

And not only him. It’s risky for anyone on a university campus to say so, but it was thanks to the early European missionaries that the first steps in anthropology and ethnology, non-Western history and cross-cultural studies began. Instead, it’s colonialism and imperialism and racism on campus, all the way down. Modern scholars, of course, have greatly developed knowledge of non-Western cultures, far more than was possible at the beginnings. But here in the Americas, for example, we had the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún, a slightly younger contemporary of Ricci’s and almost entirely unknown today. He learned Nahuatl and wrote volumes about Aztec culture and religion that many modern scholars believe to be among the most remarkable studies of non-Western cultures. Some even regard him as the first true anthropologist.

The Seattle controversy exhibits what is now a common Western syndrome. We seem quite prepared to throw overboard many of the greatest figures of our civilization – who are hardly all in agreement, by the way – in order to maintain a contemporary democratic truce. Instead of really studying unfamiliar cultures (including the one, by the way, that came out of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Bible, and is equally unknown today), we’re content to hire a few more minorities or to set up non-traditional programs – and to leave students pretty much where they already are.

Especially since they demand it, and we know what happens when university administrators do not “listen” to student demands. As one newspaper reported, students have set up a “shrine” in a university building of books they want to read:

Buddhism, the civil-rights movement, feminist theory, social movements, poverty, mass incarceration, alternative views of American history. They say they want to read and discuss authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Malala Yousafzai, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie. Instead, they say, many Matteo Ricci courses are focused on close readings of the classics.

Fine. But is it impossible for at least one institution today to say, and mean it, yes, that’s what we do here, a close reading of the classics. And of Catholicism. And we don’t believe that this makes us narrow. We think it makes us broader. We’re even happy to read the works you suggest, after we’ve done some more fundamental work. But you think you know all this already, and that it doesn’t speak to you. You’re wrong. And missing a lot. Here’s why.

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