On The Ironic Fallacy of “Diversity” In Education

I just posted a review of Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, which I was inspired to read by coming across this excellent essay of his over the summer. I can’t speak highly enough of his translation or of his essay; I feel compelled to share with you at least a three-paragraph excerpt from the essay here. Professor Esolen gives a powerful critique of one modern fad in education, and of its proponents, who would erase the classics and enshrine the contemporary, all in the name of “diversity.”

The material I teach in the first year of DWC spans four millennia, from ancient Babylon to the end of the Renaissance. This year’s entries were originally written in Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, old French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. We are in Jerusalem with David, on the coast of half-Christian England with the poet of Beowulf, in Rome with Cicero, in Madrid with Calderón, in exile with the Florentine Dante, and in London with Shakespeare. We have studied the Parthenon and Saint Peter’s, Giotto and the stained glass windows of Chartres, Arthurian romance and the poetic philosophizing of Lucretius. It is utterly preposterous to say that we are anything but multicultural. We study cultures, and there are a lot of them, and they diverge far from ours and from one another. A Viking chieftain is not a Roman senator or a Christian friar. Xerxes is not Francis Xavier.

But I know that none of that really counts. One of the student protesters, abashed, has written in our newspaper that even though a Viking is admittedly “diverse” from anybody we may meet on the street now, studying the Vikings does not serve “the larger purpose” of diversity. And thus has he unwittingly given up the ballgame.

He and the students are not really interested in studying cultures other than ours. What counts for them as “diversity” is governed entirely by a monotonous and predictable list of current political concerns. If you read a short story written in English by a Latina author living up the road in Worcester, that counts as “diverse,” but if you read a romance written in Spanish by a Spanish author living in Spain four hundred years ago, that does not count as “diverse.” It probably does not even count as Hispanic. If you pore over the verb system of Old Icelandic so that you can stumble around in the sagas of Snorri Sturluson, that does not count, despite the fact that the sagas are utterly different from any form of literature now written. But if you collect a few editorials written by Toni Morrison, that does count, despite the fact that they are written in English and that you have read hundreds of such.

 

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Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

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