Editorial: Racism in humanities isn’t the problem


Elliot Hall was built as Reed College’s Arts and Sciences building in 1912. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Race relations in the United States are rapidly returning to the foreground of the public’s consciousness. It seems nowhere is immune from the rising tensions — not even the study of classical antiquity.

At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, student protesters are at the center of a controversy dealing with the liberal arts school’s mandatory first-year humanities program, Hum 110.

The course — which covers ancient history and literature from the beginnings of Mesopotamian civilization through the end of the Roman period — faces accusations from student organizations at Reed of “implicitly uphold[ing] and gently reinforc[ing] imperialist capitalist white cisheteronormative patriarchy.”

It’s true that a humanities class like the one required at Reed is Eurocentric, with texts written mainly by white men. But calling the course materials supportive of white supremacy is simply unfounded, and whatever legitimate concerns protesters may have about the curriculum are lost in those claims and in the protesters’ actions in August.

Student groups have protested Reed’s humanities gen ed for about a year, mostly respectfully. But this year, dissatisfied with the school’s progress in updating the course’s reading list, activists took it upon themselves to inject their own ideological spin into the class.

At the class’s Wednesday and Friday meetings two weeks ago, protesters distributed what they called “supplementary readings” to entering first years. And when student activists attempted to speak over the professor during class on Aug. 28, the professor got up and left the lecture hall.

Students in the lecture on Friday — which was also cancelled due to protester interference — showed up en masse to the guest lecturer’s office later, resulting in an impromptu lecture. Most students clearly had an interest in hearing what would have been said. And the lecture notes from the professor, which were later published in Reed Magazine, suggest the protesters’ approach to fixing the course needs a little more nuance.

I’m female, mixed race, American and Peruvian, gay, atheist and relatively young,” the lecturer, an assistant English professor at Reed, wrote in the magazine. “I study poetry that is basically the opposite of me: male, white, British, straight, God-fearing, five hundred years old. And I love it.”

Moreover, many of the questions of “whiteness” and “blackness” that protesters want included in Hum 110’s coursework doesn’t necessarily make sense in context of ancient societies, Jay Dickson, Chair of the English department at Reed, explained.

“The idea that Hum 110 is a ‘white’ course is very strange to me,” he told Reed Magazine. “It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.”

While sympathetic, the move to refocus a general humanities course away from Greece and Rome fundamentally misunderstands the reasoning for reading the writings of white men from those societies.

For better or for worse, the writings of figures like Aristotle and Aeschylus influenced the foundation for modern society, and understanding them is vital to understanding where all aspects of society come from — prejudiced or otherwise.