NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 16, 2008

Afrocentrism began on college campuses in the 1980s and gained astonishing momentum with the publication of Martin Bernal's "Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization" (1989).  According to various Afrocentric books and popular assertions, ancient Egypt invaded ancient Greece, Plato and Herodotus somehow picked up their ideas in travels along the Nile, and Aristotle stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria.  Though the arguments were contradictory and scattered, the point was that Western civilization had been founded on materials and discoveries borrowed or stolen from black Egyptians, says John Leo, editor of Minding the Campus, a Web site on universities sponsored by the Manhattan Institute.

During this whirlwind of dubious scholarship, the academic world mostly remained silent, hiding behind the curtain of academic freedom and withholding its criticism lest a statement of simple truth be branded "racist," says Leo.  The scholar who did the most to break this silence was Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist at Wellesley College. 

Outraged by the nonscholarly approach of Afrocentric writers, she somewhat naïvely imagined that facts would put their extreme theories to rest, says Leo.  She noted, for instance:

  • Socrates couldn't have been black, as alleged, because his parents were Athenian citizens and blacks, in classical Athens, were not eligible for citizenship.
  • Aristotle would have had a tough time stealing his philosophy from the library at Alexandria, since he died before the library was built.

Such arguments went nowhere, Lefkowitz writes, with those who saw Greek philosophy "as yet another case of a colonialist European plundering of Africa."

Though much of academia is still lost in postmodern theory and relativism, Lefkowitz insists on what we might call a counternarrative: Teachers owe it to themselves and their students to get as close as possible to the truth.  And the academy has still not firmly answered the central question of "History Lesson": What should the university do when a professor insists on teaching demonstrable untruths? 

Source: John Leo, "The Hazards of Telling the Truth," Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2008; based upon: Mary Lefkowitz, "History Lesson: A Race Odyssey," Yale University Press, April 2008.

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