Letter to the Editor from a Professor Emeritus of History

In the May 18 edition of The Spectator, Melissa Lin editorializes her support for the goals of the Matteo Ricci College Student Coalition (MRCSC). I would strongly encourage Ms. Lin and the MRCSC to reconsider their wish to curtail the teaching of a “Eurocentric curriculum.” In particular, Western civilization’s Enlightenment tradition, rooted in the thought of the eighteenth-century philosophes, has trumpeted to the world at large a belief that humans can abate their tendency toward irrationality by the conscious and disciplined use of reason. The Enlightenment’s promotion of human equality and the use of reason to search for the greatest good for the greatest number—with human rights considered as a key good—has encouraged an ethic of tolerance that has largely been the wellspring from which movements for minority rights and the toleration of differences have arisen.

Enlightenment principles were, in part, reacting out of revulsion against horrific sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious wars within Christianity. The philosophes’ principles were meant to counter a malignant sectarianism to which we see parallels in present-day wars and terroristic acts arising out religious and ethnic differences in the Middle East. While I certainly would not compare the threat posed by Middle Eastern terrorists to that posed by the MRCSC, an over-emphasis on marginalized group identity by the MRCSC and likeminded people creates the danger of valorizing ethnic and other forms of group consciousness at the expense of more universalist values. Students would benefit by a grounding in the Enlightenment tradition—and in its foundation in the Greco-Roman tradition, the Western religious tradition, and the Renaissance and Reformation.

The Enlightenment has served as a tool unique in the world in balancing group-think and reason, in balancing religion and reason, and in encouraging a flowering of movements of the very marginalized for whom Ms. Lin and the MRCSC are fighting.

—Daniel Burnstein, Professor Emeritus of History