At First Things, Carl Trueman is very upset about the new curriculum adopted for California public schools (K-12), which he describes as “predictable in its content and emphases” and which he says “will provide religious conservatives with much about which to complain, not least the intrusion of lesbian and gay history into the classrooms of seven-year-olds.”
That latter is certainly an interesting charge, but Mr. Trueman has no time to document it, because he wants to focus on how the California curriculum reflects “deeper problems with the metaphysics of society,” to wit:
Today, the “human condition” seems to be vanishing, because humanity itself seems to be on the verge of disappearing as a meaningful, foundational concept. It is being torn to shreds, turned into a chaotic mélange of discrete identities, each given ultimate significance by a mass of micronarratives. And that process is political in the most radical sense, because it calls into question the very basis of social organization: a common humanity that we all share.
Rather than teaching “a common humanity,” Trueman laments, California schools will be teaching “expressive individualism,” the problem with which is that it “has no specific content and thus is subject to those identities which society considers authentic and to which it has thus granted legitimacy.” That lack of “specific content” leads to a conundrum:
“Who decides which identities are authentic? Have you ever wondered why some minorities make it and others do not? Why, say, LGBTQers have pride of place on the California curriculum but foot fetishists, redheads, and people with allergies to latex do not? It is because the latter currently lack the cultural cachet that comes with the imprimatur of the entertainment industry, with the public sympathy arising from publicized marginalization and victimhood, and with the influence of organized lobby groups.”
Mr. Trueman’s concern for other oppressed minorities is touching—unless one suspects it is entirely disingenuous. One suspects that Mr. Trueman does not really want all minorities out of the closet; he actually wants them all put back in it where they belong. Letting them out has been akin to opening up a Pandora’s Box of clamoring and conflicting claims, and it’s all so confusing:
Thus, the California curriculum is a symptomatic codification of the aesthetic preferences of the current political culture. As such, it raises question far beyond whether schools rather than parents should teach children sexual morality. For years, the in-house question for historians has been whether history can survive as a discipline despite the proliferation of micro-narratives and the collapse of the possibility of grand theory. But now that academic question has more immediate real-world consequences: Can the nation state, or maybe society in general in the democratic form with which we are familiar, survive in anything like its current shape, when history—which is vital to the nation-state's legitimation—is fracturing into the myriad identities to which expressive individualism is ultimately vulnerable?
Oh for the good old days when there was a master narrative, one which just happened to focus on God-fearing, Christian, white heterosexual males like Carl Trueman! Back then, it was okay to use “man” as a surrogate term for both men and women; back then, Crayola got no complaints about its “flesh-colored” crayons. Things were so much simpler when those who didn’t fit into the prevailing narrative knew enough to keep quiet about (and learn to hide) their own identities and their own histories while being instructed instead in the history of people very much like Carl Trueman.*
It’s absolutely true, as Trueman says, that society codifies and grants its imprimatur to “approved” identities; it always has, and in fact that task is inherent in the very notion of “society”. That is precisely why people previously denied such imprimatur have been pushing for inclusion and acceptance. To be clear, Mr. Trueman doesn’t object to the fact that society performs such a task; rather, he objects to the particular choices being made today about what kind of identities are publicly acceptable (and can even be discussed in public schools!).
As so many people do, Trueman confuses social trends he doesn’t like with the impending collapse of civilization itself. He closes by noting that the California curriculum (of which he provides, by the way, not a single actual example) is “part of an ongoing and perhaps largely unwitting challenge to what it means to be human, and thus to the way the world is currently organized.”
Interestingly enough, there was at least one other time in Western history when such a challenge was made to the understanding of what it meant to be human and to the way the world was then organized. That challenge came from the early Christians, who (as today’s Christians are fond of telling us) “turned the world upside down”. Perhaps the world needs to be thus shaken up from time to time; perhaps our understanding of ourselves needs to be challenged every now and then.
Mr. Trueman accuses today’s political and cultural Left of “playing with fire” and worries that “we may all be about to be burned”; but fire has its uses, and purging the lingering traces of social intolerance1 doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to some of us.
*To be fair, it is easier to learn one master narrative about history and about "humanity" than it is to learn myriad micro-narratives. The problem, of course, is that any such master narrative would be a lie.
1 I am not accusing Carl Trueman of “intolerance”; I don’t know the man. I am referring to social attitudes and, to use his term, imprimaturs.