We have previously discussed protests against literature and philosophy courses due to their reliance on white male authors from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment. The latest such protest is occurring at Reed College where students called “Reedies Against Racism” are protesting a required humanities class that explores founding works from ancient Greece and Rome. Requiring freshman to read such works is being denounced as “really harmful.” I have long been an advocate of the core curriculum and Western Civilization works (a love for these works that began as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago which helped establish the core curriculum or great works model).
“Reedies Against Racism” wants “Humanities 110 – Introduction to Humanities: Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean” to be “reformed to represent the voices of people of color.” Alex Boyd, a Reedies Against Racism organizer, is quoted as saying:
“The course in its current iteration draws from predominantly white authors and relies heavily on the notion that Western customs are the most civilized because they are derived from those of ancient Greeks and Romans who are considered the inventors of civilization.”
It is true that they are viewed as laying the foundation for Western civilization and thought. They also happened to be “predominantly white” since they were Greek and Roman. However, we use their works for concepts that helped change humanity as a whole and still shape concepts of the individual and the state around the world.
This is one of the items on a list of 25 demands, but it is one of the most disturbing from an academic standpoint. As I have previously stated, I do not believe that the content of our academic courses should be determined by plebiscite or protests. Moreover, students have an assortment of courses that they may take in school. These courses require an education on foundational works that have shaped political and literary works for generations. Indeed, these great works offer an excellent foundation for exploring and comparing non-Western works.
What also concerns me is that fact that these students claimed the right to prevent other students from participating in classes or events — a similar complaint raised against the recent protests against James Comey at Howard University. The students interrupted a lecture and were reportedly screaming at other students who actually wanted to learn. I have taken a harsh line on such disruptions of classrooms like a recent incident at Northwestern University. This violates a core defining values of our academic institutions and such students should be suspended for such conduct. There is a difference between voicing your views and preventing others from speaking, particularly inside of a classroom. When you claim the right to prevent others from hearing opposing views or speakers, you are at odds with the academic mission of these universities.
Presumably, Reed is not willing to yield to such demands on the content of its courses. Reed is an excellent school and this course is an important component to any education. However, there is no indication of any discipline for students who reportedly disrupted the class. The professor at the start of one of the disruptions told the students that this was an inappropriate demonstration but they ignored her and took over her class.
Professor Elizabeth Drumm, the Hum 110 program chair, is heard that the beginning of the video below saying “I’m sorry, this is a classroom space and this is not appropriate.” While protest organizers, Addison Bates, Alex Boyd, and Tiffany Chang were told that they were banned from attending the lecture in the future, no other action is known to have been taken against the students in denying the other students the right to attend the class — or the right of the faculty to conduct their classes.
Later appearances by activists continued despite objections from other students. There is no evidence of significant action taken by the college against these students.
These students openly attacked not just principles of academic freedom but free speech. Yet, Reed College appears like little more than a pedestrian as a mob takes over a class room, as was Northwester in the prior incident. The merits of the cause are immaterial when the protesters are claiming the right to stop others from hearing opposing views or works.
On the list of demands, the students demand that “Hum 110 should be conscious of the power it gives to already privileged ideas and welcome critique of that use of power.” I have little doubt that the professors welcome critiques of these works and differing perspectives. That is why we teach. We relish students bring passion and reasoned arguments to the analysis of different works. However, I am not sure what is meant by “privileged ideas.” These certainly have been dominant ideas because they spoke to a deep understanding of humanity and its struggle for truth. These ideas rose to dominance on their own merit and have remained transcendent influences because the content of the work. Plato is not taught because he resonates with a world perspective of white males. He articulated early concepts of a good society and good citizen. I suppose good ideas are always “privileged” in the sense that their inherent logic and vision distinguished them from alternative views. These authors rose above contemporaries and still influence thought due to their unique analytical and descriptive elements.
Here is the full list of demands:
- Paid day for 9/26 for all Reed staff in honor of the boycott.
- Transparency and long-term reform regarding Reed’s involvement in exploiting prison labor and their investment in companies(i.e. Wells Fargo) that profit from the incarceration of black and brown people, (i.e. NSA and GEO stocks).
- Reform CSO, AOD Review Panel, and JBoard practices and sanctions to move away from carrying out racial profiling and requiring community service, and move towards restorative justice policies.
- Transparency regarding the demographics of students given AODs.
- The creation and implementation of appropriate scaffolding to bridge the gap between low-SES high schools and Reed through improving the educational services already provided.
- Revise the system of outreach that Reed implements within marginalized communities. Ensure that the amount of visits to low-SES and/or predominantly POC high schools match the amount of visits to predominantly white high schools.
- Alter the Housing Lottery to explicitly prioritize low-SES, international, and students with disabilities.
- The adjustment of Meal Plan costs for students in need, so that students are only responsible for meal plan dollars and Reed covers building costs as well as the fixed costs of Bon Appetit.
- A transparent yearly review of the off-campus housing budget in relation to inflation.
- The creation of a paid student position for a black student in the MRC that is specific to tending to the needs or concerns of black students.
- The establishment of a paid staff position to participate in the maintenance and organization of the Black Student Union.
- More transparency from the admissions office regarding graduation and retention rates by race, gender, and SES.
- The required freshman course should be reformed to represent the voices of people of color. Lecturers should structure delivery and analysis of content that is sensitive to and proactive for inclusive practices. There should be an articulated understanding that “foundational texts” are subjective and that the importance of the course is to foster student’s abilities to read, write, and listen/respond. Before this is accomplished, Hum 110 should be conscious of the power it gives to already privileged ideas and welcome critique of that use of power. This could be done by 1) allowing alternative readings that critique texts on the current syllabus, 2) making Hum 110 non-mandatory until reform happens or 3) alternate options for Hum lecture.
- Every HCC counselor should have a background in talking about race and queer issues. Counseling positions in the HCC are to be held by at least one black person, who has competence in addressing black bodies, with the express priority of serving black students.
- Mandatory conferences for building race sensitivity for staff and faculty that includes the input and participation of Students of Color. Contracting a qualified educator to lead continuous mandatory workshops and conduct check-ins with students and professors.
- The hiring of more tenure-track black faculty, with a greater quantity of dialogue at more consistent intervals between students and faculty search/hiring committees.
- Increased funding for Peer Mentor Program (PMP), ensuring that the amount of mentors and general resources correspond to the need, i.e. the number of marginalized students in the incoming class.
- The passing and implementation of the CRES proposal by CAPP, with the understanding that CRES is to be taught by people of color. The administration/faculty is responsible for the construction of a one-year plan for funding CRES, while seeking long-term funding for the program that will be incorporated into the endowment.
- The alteration of Reed’s Operating Principles and Diversity Statement, to reflect a focus on anti-racism/anti-oppressive rather than diversity.
- Revision of the process of investigating racial bias against tenure-track faculty through CAT.
- The inclusion of a question on professor evaluation forms about the general openness of professors and their handling of racial topics, gender topics, and queer topics. The addition of an optional question that allows students to indicate their race.
- Annual anti-oppression workshop for all students, faculty, staff, and administration.
- In addition to the existing grievances process, allowing Honor Cases to be brought against faculty by students, adjudicated by a review board consisting of students and faculty.
- Expand options for international students’ employment opportunities.
- Improvement of financial aid, especially the creation of particular scholarships for black students.