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Reconciling the curricular contradictions across disciplines

I feel I’m on the border between two countries I am faithful to, and by venturing into one, I betray the other. In my Spanish course, Cultural Productions of the Borderlands, we are studying a culture which emerged from the violence at the U.S.-Mexico border and predicating our learning on the understanding that all cultures are, in principle, equal.

My political science course, Classical Quest for Justice, however, explores ancient political philosophy in order to discover the best kind of life for a human being. The professor began the course by establishing that cultural relativism assumes that one has evaluated every kind of human life and found them all equal.  The class instead explores the possibility that there is a superior way of life and, therefore, superior cultures.

How can I be a U.S. Latino interested in ultimate moral truths when this idea was used to perpetrate violence on my ancestors? My Spanish class might tell me to remember the history of my ancestors and the traps of colonial ideology, but my political science course would tell me I’m engaged in philosophical thought. I am only trying to figure out who I am and what idea of justice which I am willing to fight for.

Agreeing that all cultures are equal implies that humans are sole products of their environment. I instead believe human beings share an essential nature that certain absolute truths can fulfill. On the other hand, by agreeing that certain ways of life are better than others, I forget that this belief allowed violent empires to equate their military superiority with cultural superiority.

If I believe that there are higher human truths and remember that empires have used this idea to forcibly create hegemonic identities, then I can conclude that moral values have to be flexible. Normative standards of sexuality and religion should be fluid in an ideal culture. Coercing people who challenge the status quo to adopt traditional values reveals the fragility of the community’s beliefs. It also reveals that community’s antagonism toward individuality.

The best kind of community would nourish the happiness of its citizens, and would not create norms that hinder the organic evolution of identities. The United States and the western world failed to  accomplish this because their rigid definition of human nature crashed against the shores of race, sexuality, religion and language. Cultural relativism allows us to denounce the West’s false superiority, but that doesn’t mean that objective truths only offer tradition, imperialism and violence.

Just because objective truth was once used to oppress doesn’t mean it has to be used in such a way in the future. What if the higher truths we help create for future communities stand alongside change and growth?

Our historical position is a privilege. We can look back and know that there is a distinction between what is essential to human nature and what is only traditional understanding. The possibility of a truth behind that distinction is a task that cultural relativism hides from us.

Now and in the future we will all be forced to construct our own ideal way of existing. Let us have the courage and curiosity to wonder at how different people, and history itself, complicate our ideal way of living our lives. If we make a collective effort to do so, the moral values of the future won’t clash against our fluid nature. They can instead guide and unite us toward a common goal.

Daniel De Andrade ’19 is a political science major from Norwalk, Conn. You can contact him at deandraded@kenyon.edu.

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