Conversations with a Critical Thinker

(OR: Black on White ¹ Right)

The first draft of our Around the World anthology placed Maugham's "Mr. Know-All" in a "Crosscultural Bridges" unit. After all, the story involved Americans, Englishmen, and a Middle Easterner who is, according to the narrator of the story, trying to pass as an Englishman.

But just then, an Egyptian scholar visited the interdisciplinary Studies Program. Now "Mustafa" liked our book and was contemplating its adoption in his native land, until he noticed "Mr. Know-All." At that moment, all hell broke loose.

"What's the matter, Mustafa?" one of us asked.

"My dear American colleagues," he began. "I am truly astonished that you chose to include this piece of 'literature' in your collection."

"Why?" we asked, taken back by astonishment.

"Well," Mustafa said, "I feel that you have unknowingly succumbed to Mr. Maugham's superb storytelling gift, and that you have ignored a most disturbing aspect of his story."

We were still puzzled, and said so. So Mustafa continued.

"My esteemed friends, Mr. Maugham is an out-and-out racist. Read the story with this new allegation in mind, and judge for yourselves."

We did, and found Mustafa's charge of racism not as absurd as it first appeared. So we hastily apologized. Before we continue, we would like you to convince yourself that Mustafa's accusation is sensible:

a. Please re-read the story and cite at least three instances which seem to document Mustafa's claim of racism.

b. State whether, in your opinion, Somerset Maugham shares the view that "there is only one caste, the caste of humanity?"

At this point, however, one of us interrupted Mustafa and argued that his accusation rested on a misconception. That is, Mustafa seemed to have confused the person who tells the story with Mr. Maugham. The narrator, perhaps, looks down on Egyptians and Nepalis, but he should not be confused with Mr. Maugham.

Mustafa was equal to this task. He reminded us that the USA was part of the UK long long ago, while Egyptians had experienced British condescension first hand. He argued that Maugham never took the trouble to distance himself from the narrator. Finally, he marshalled a few other illustrations of Maugham's parochialism. For instance, he reminded us of Maugham's "Alien Corn," which again capitalizes, patronizingly, on ethnic differences. And this leads us to the next assignment:

c. In a single paragraph, please comment on Mustafa's argument: Is he right in insisting that Maugham himself is a racist?

You would think by now that old Mustafa had made his point, and that he would join us for some long-overdue falafel at Harmonie Café (across the Street from the ISP). But our hopes were quickly dashed, for at this point Mustafa turned his critical gaze on another aspect of "Mr. Know-All."

"My esteemed Nepali colleagues," Mustafa proceeded, "I can understand how Maugham's ethnocentricity escaped you, but what really baffles me is that you failed, as well, to notice his shoddy math. In fact, even if Maugham were a honest man (which I doubt), I wouldn't trust him with giving me correct change for a buck. I sense, however, that you are all anxious to savor some humus and Turkish Coffee, and I must confess that I myself would love to sample a few dishes from my part of the world. So let us drop this subject for the moment. When you go home tonight, I urge you to re-read Maugham's captivating story once more and convince yourselves that I am right."

So we did go to lunch. And then, at Mustafa's insistence, we went to the DIA, and saw Mustafa in action (in addition to being a critical thinking ace, he is, no doubt, the best art critic this side of the Atlantic Ocean). We then went home, re-read the story, and saw that indeed Mr. Maugham committed an embarrassing mathematical error.

d. Just for the fun of it: Can you explain Maugham's error.

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