Western canon, meet trigger warning

It’s time to overhaul the great-books curriculum

May 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

At the end of last month in an opinion piece for The Columbia University Spectator, four students gave cultural conservatives the bait they’d always been waiting for. Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe and Tracey Wang called for Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” to come with a trigger warning for sexual violence. This is the parody wing of the social justice warrior movement — the young people who feel so confident about the importance of their identities that they think thousands of years of literature should accommodate them. And what’s more, they’re right.

Although the writers limit themselves to asking professors to be more thoughtful about how they teach, the implications of their intervention are broader. At The New Republic, Jerry A. Coyne sees exactly where all this trigger warning nonsense is going. He writes, “There goes the Bible, there goes Dante, there goes ‘Huck Finn’ (loaded with racism), there goes all the old literature written before we realized that minorities, women and gays weren’t second-class people.” His fears are probably unjustified in the near term, but he is right that his ideas are in trouble. Thousands of years reduced to the history and literature of white men looks less and less like, as the Columbia website describes its core curriculum, the basis for “critical and creative intellectual capacity.”

Trigger warnings (or other alerts before sensitive content) are a red herring in a wider fight. The four students’ complaint is not, as it has been caricatured, that they don’t want to be exposed to triggering literature in class. At one point they mention the possible reading-list addition of Toni Morrison, an author who deals with themes of sexual violence throughout her work.

But trigger warnings are a way students have found to use language to lodge a complaint against the canon and apply a critical asterisk to hallowed names. The more difficult issue is how to teach students from a curriculum it wasn’t meant for in the first place.

Empty core

Nowhere in America is the Western canon more hallowed than Columbia University, where the names “Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Virgil” are carved on the library facade as if it were a pretentious seventh-grader’s Facebook likes page. At Columbia College, freshmen are automatically enrolled in Literature Humanities, and they have to take Contemporary Civilization before they may graduate. These are canon classes in which students read as many of the classics as the school feels it can cram into 12 weeks. It’s the kind of reading list that’s so stereotypically collegiate, it sounds like a joke: the Bible, Machiavelli, Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Dostoevsky, Hume, Darwin, etc., with some Freud and Marx thrown in at the end for good measure.

Women weren’t admitted to Columbia College until 1983. They went to Barnard, across the street, instead. Two years later, Literature Humanities added its first book by a female author, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” joined later, but that’s it. On a syllabus of 21 books, only those two are by women. Contemporary Civilization, a crash intro to Western philosophy, is worse, with 33 readings and only Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” and Woolf’s essay “Three Guineas” by women. The only critical text on race in either class is W.E.B. DuBois’s short “The Souls of Black Folk.” There are no female authors of color and no Asians or Latinos represented in the core curriculum.

What message are students who aren’t white men supposed to take from their nonrepresentation in history’s required reading?

To expect the women of color who wrote the Spectator piece to feel comfortable or safe in a class where they are not even a curricular afterthought is disingenuous. The Columbia core and the Western canon were written by and for white men, and that has not been an especially contentious statement for a long time now. Columbia has debated this problem for decades, and in 1990 the school instituted a generic requirement, now called “global core,” that students take courses in cultures not covered in Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities. It’s an explicit admission: Europe is required; every other culture is optional.

Requiring courses in the literature and thought of Western civilization that introduce critiques at the end is passive-aggressive, an institutional microaggression. Don’t believe me; believe canonized Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote that Rousseau (who precedes her on the syllabus) renders women “objects of pity, bordering on contempt.” Or DuBois, who wrote of always having to measure one’s soul “by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Why should students have to endure gender- and race-based contempt from their required reading list?

Be the change

Putting trigger warnings on old texts is a way of reading the syllabus backward. To place a “misogynist contempt” warning on Rousseau (something no one has actually proposed, to my knowledge) would be to consider Wollstonecraft’s critique first rather than as an addendum. It’s only fidelity to a historical narrative in which women are “discovered” as subjects in the late 18th century that prevents this reversal.

But the brave students who wrote to the Spectator — and writing that piece was certainly brave — didn’t need to learn that women are thinking subjects from Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf. And if they’re smart enough to get into Columbia, they’re smart enough to count the number of women and writers of color on their syllabus. What message are they supposed to take from their nonrepresentation in history’s required reading? Either they’re second class or they’re being marginalized. They know damn well it’s the latter.

“History is written by the winners” is a truism that most freshman probably know before they get to campus. And if Columbia wants to teach the same history that it did 100 years ago but with one black man and a few white women tacked on, that says a lot about the school’s place in the world. As it is, most Columbia students (who are not white men) will read a story of civilization in which they are, as thinking subjects, merely a modern critique. It’s a hurtful disservice to the students and a disservice to history itself.

I don’t know if Columbia teaches Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach as part of its core, but if it does, it’s late in the spring semester. What a cruel joke it would be to learn, after months reading the great works of Western philosophy, that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” If change is good enough for the world, then it’s good enough for the freshman syllabus at Columbia.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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