- Identity politics do not belong in the classroom.
- Reed College is making a mistake by allowing the unfair charge of racism to govern the creation of university curricula.
Increasingly, students around the US are arguing that identity politics should play a role in the development of university curricula.
The latest example comes from Reed College, a liberal-arts institution in Portland, Oregon. The school recently announced a decision to revamp its mandatory humanities course – a class that has been taught at the school since the 1940s.
Humanities 110, according to a Reed professor named Peter Steinberger, is “the foundation of the Reed College curriculum.” The goals of the course, he wrote in 2011, have been “to introduce students to serious college-level work, to introduce them to Reed’s distinctive approach to teaching, and to provide an opportunity for rigorous writing instruction.”
The class, he wrote, “seeks to introduce students in a systematic way to the various disciplines – history, literature, philosophy, aesthetics, social sciences – of which the liberal arts are composed.”
These lofty goals are shared by many universities that require undergraduates to enroll in an introductory humanities course. But if the process at Reed is repeated elsewhere, they may be subverted to the wave of political correctness sweeping campuses across the country.
How Humanities 110 became so controversial at Reed
The debate was fuelled in large part by a student group called Reedies Against Racism, or RAR, which had argued that the course wasn’t inclusive enough of minority voices.
RAR had demanded that it be redeveloped because the “curriculum is Eurocentric at its core” and therefore “should not be mandatory until it is reformed to reflect a wider range of cultures or abolished as the foundational course altogether.”
In airing their grievances, activists at Reed protested the course by standing in the classroom with signs. Lucía Martínez Valdivia, an assistant professor of English and humanities at Reed, wrote in The Washington Post in October about her experience teaching during the protests. The signs the protesters held up, she wrote, condemned “the course and its faculty as white supremacists, as anti-black, as not open to dialogue and criticism, on the grounds that we continue to teach, among many other things, Aristotle and Plato.”
But the charge of racism rings hollow. It’s one thing to argue that racism of generations past is what helped pave the way for so many white male scholars, philosophers, poets, and scientists – and so few minority ones. But it’s quite another to argue that studying those figures – or valuing their work – is itself racist.
And while the act of excluding (or mostly excluding) nonwhite voices has the potential to come across as discriminatory, it’s important to explore where that exclusion stems from because we cannot change which voices were given platforms in the past.
The US has never had a female president, but it cannot reasonably be argued that a course studying the lives of America’s presidents is inherently sexist or that a university requiring such a course is sending the message that women are inferior. The only message would be that our presidents are people worth learning about. The same logic should be applied to humanities courses and the universities that require them.
A presentation Valdivia was set to give to Humanities 110 students was canceled as a result of disruptions from the protesters, but it was posted in full on Reed magazine’s website. In it lies a kernel of wisdom that should be carefully considered by all those who believe that education should be shaped by identity politics.
“I’m female, mixed race, American and Peruvian, gay, atheist, and relatively young,” Valdivia wrote. But “I study poetry that is basically the opposite of me: male, white, British, straight, God-fearing, five hundred years old. And I love it.”
Valdivia touched on an important idea: We don’t need to study people who look or think like us to have a rich educational experience. But the same can be said of people who are different from us. The point is that identity should not be the deciding factor in what we prioritise in the classroom.
However, the impulse to infuse minority voices into the syllabus is precisely about making courses and curricula reflect our current values. This is folly. We should be able to study generations or societies that held values contradictory to our own without feeling the need to load the syllabus with material from countries or time periods outside the course’s stated zone of interest.
If courses are ultimately amended to ensure that every syllabus includes a healthy cross section of voices, students trying to study specific cultures or societies will gain a watered-down picture of the subjects they are trying to study. If satisfying a diversity quota for the texts studied outweighs the actually relevant subject matter, educators will be guilty of failing to adequately educate.
At Reed, the faculty ultimately decided to change the course
Reed is adding two new “modules” on Mexico City and Harlem.
But far from considering this a victory, RAR has already demanded that further steps be taken. In a statement posted to Facebook, RAR bemoaned the fact that “the African and Middle Eastern texts that past Reed activists fought for – including Gilgamesh and the Egyptian love poems – will be cut from the syllabus in exchange for the inclusion of Mexico City and Harlem.”
They claim that as a result, “the first semester of Humanities 110 will become actually less diverse than it was before, because all of the non-white texts in the course will be taught after the Greek and Roman content, during the second semester.” This will, in their eyes, send the message “that learning about white culture is more urgent and foundational to a college education.”
RAR is now demanding that Athens and Rome be scrapped from the first semester of the new Humanities 110 syllabus.
“We’re calling for the Humanities 110 faculty to pick different cities from the old syllabus for the first two semesters,” the group said.
Why? Because “we feel that these cities should be outside of Europe, as reparations for Humanities 110’s history of erasing the histories of people of colour, especially black people.”
RAR’s reaction to what any dispassionate observer would consider a victory for his or her group is telling. It’s also a harbinger of what universities should expect if they begin reimagining their curriculum to satisfy the identity-politics priorities of their undergraduate charges.
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