In Defense of the “Western Canon”

In a story that kind of almost made national news in between Trump stories, Reed College has experienced some civil unrest for the last year and a half. The Atlantic posted what I think is an outstanding summary of what’s been happening, if you’re interested. If not, here’s a very brief overview of the salient facts.

Reed College, 2016-2017

A group of students who call themselves Reedies Against Racism (RAR)* issued several demands in September of 2016 in the name of making Reed a less racist and white supremacist space. Among these demands was a call to change the content of Reed’s core curriculum, which consists of one required year-long humanities course.

This humanities course, known as Hum110, is five weeks of Sumerian, Egyptian, and Hebrew works, followed by a deep dive into Greek and Roman history and culture for the remainder of the class. It is, essentially, a course on what some people have called the “Western Canon,” and you can see that syllabus here–at least for now. Professors from a variety of disciplines, including history, classics, philosophy, literature, and language, bring their unique takes to the cultures and texts under scrutiny. This class has been taught in some form since 1943.

RAR claims that the texts taught in Hum110 are racist, colonialist, and white supremacist, that they cause pain and trauma to students of color, and that the course should be replaced by a course that studies marginalized cultures instead.

This course involves 3 hour-long lectures a week. RAR protested every single one of these lectures from September 2016 until early October of 2017.

Reed threatened action against these students, but to my knowledge did not take any. Instead, they accelerated their review of the course curriculum, which normally occurs every decade.

Yesterday, that review concluded, and Reed College released their decision.

“Hum 110 will continue to be a unified, year-long course with lecture and conference components and will continue to study course materials through an interdisciplinary lens. The new structure will consist of four modules, roughly one per quarter, each focusing on a different geographical area during a crucial period of historical change. At least one of these modules will cover the Americas and at least one of these modules will cover the ancient Mediterranean.”

In other words, incoming Freshmen will receive 7 weeks of Greek and/or Roman humanities, 7 weeks of some culture from the Americas, and two 7-week sections on ???

So long, deep dive. So long, Hum110.

Western Hegemony

I am against this. I have been against this from the beginning, I remain against this, and I fully expect to go to my goddamn grave against this.

This is not because I think the “Western Canon” is the font of all knowledge or because I think “West is Best”. Not because I’m a racist or a white supremacist. Not because I believe other cultures aren’t worth learning about. Not even because I’m entangled in a love affair with Greek thought, which is the one thing on this list that is irrefutably true.

Here are some facts:

  • Universities have limited amounts of core curriculum. At Reed, the core curriculum is a single year-long humanities class.
  • A single year-long humanities class cannot possibly cover all the world’s cultures in any kind of meaningful way. This class must pick and choose which culture(s) to cover.
  • Western culture is globally dominant at present. It is currently everywhere to some extent.

Maybe you hate Western culture. Maybe you love it. Maybe, like me, you find it admirable, flawed, and fixable. Maybe you want to refine it, or change it, or dismantle it, or set it on fire, or maintain it, or protect it, or revert to it.

Whichever of these sentiments describes you, you are going to need to know about it.

Western thinkers for millenia now have turned to Greek and Roman writings as a starting point for arguments. Western thinkers of the modern-day have turned to those older thinkers who originally turned to the Greeks and the Romans. The genealogy of Western thought leads back to Greece and Rome.** Do you want to understand this culture we live in? Not the superficial, instinctive understanding that everyone has of a culture that is so dominant and so omnipresent, but actually understand the structure of it? Where it came from? The assumptions that underpin it? Do you want to cut through the bullshit and get to the roots, the things taken for granted, the ideas that started it all, do you want to really wrap your mind around this culture that is everywhere, all the time?

For anyone who wants to advance a position on what the future should look like, this question should be rhetorical. Understanding is an essential prerequisite for action. Whether you want to burn this motherfucker down or make America great again or something in between, you need to understand what makes Western culture tick.

If your political enemies lack this deep, philosophical understanding of Western culture–and they often do–understanding the roots of Western thought is an advantage that should not be thrown away, especially in the midst of what is rapidly becoming a modern-day culture war. As racial nationalism resurges around the globe, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Where do we go from here? Ethno-nationalism? Or something better, something different, something sustainable?

The future of this planet and the people who live on it will be determined by the outcome of this philosophical, political, and cultural struggle. It is crucial to consolidate every advantage.

Philosophy is getting physical.

And what does Reed do, in the face of this?

At a time when the alt-right is growing stronger and more influential every day, drawing in great part from myths, misconceptions, and–yes–some truth about the origins of Western culture and interpretations of the “Western Canon,” Reed College decides to forgo training in the very culture most of us want to change, fix, or fight.

Ceding Ground

The central place of Western culture in the globe today should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of emphasizing Greek and Roman thought in a core curriculum, preferentially and over other cultures. Even if you feel that Western texts hold no ideas of value, you should want to keep this class.

And if you feel that way, maybe stop here, because the rest of this article is going to piss you off.

Because I do believe that Western texts hold value. I don’t think they’re a direct transcription of divine Truth itself, but I do believe they contain profound insights into human nature. They are not the only texts that contain valuable insights, but they do in fact have value. Please note that the rhetoric of RAR–and of some sympathetic faculty–dismisses these works as colonialist, white supremacist, and racist.

When academia abandons Greek and Roman texts–which they are doing in increasing numbers across America–they cede this value to their enemies on the right. By declaring these texts colonialist and white supremacist, by making these texts into the enemy, they allow the alt-right to pick up that mantle and pretend to be upholding the virtues of Western culture with their madness, not merely its vices as is actually the case.

RAR is not wrong: these works have been used in colonialist, white supremacist, and racist ways by a portion of Western society that still very much exists today. There is, however, a great deal of difference between saying that these works have been used by one’s enemies and saying that the texts themselves are the enemy.

If you claim that the alt-right is misusing, say, Aristotle, you get to continue to claim Aristotle’s value for yourself while fighting your enemy.

If, on the other hand, you claim that Aristotle is a tool of the alt-right, they get all of it. They don’t just get the natural slavery argument, they get excellence and moderation and courage and etc. They get to stand for that shit because the left has explicitly rejected it. Their false claims of supremacy are strengthened because they get to claim that all the incredible, beautiful, profound, uplifting things within Greek thought are inherently Western, inherently white. They get to claim this with the explicit and emphatic agreement of the Left.

As of now, they get to claim this with the agreement of Reed college.

“This is Western culture!” -Academia, apparently

I wish I could end this with some kind of call to action. I wish there was something that could be done. I don’t think anything can be done to save Reed’s curriculum. The campus has been through too much on this subject to reverse its decision now. Perhaps it will add an optional course to replace the one they’ve gutted. Perhaps enough people will want to take it.

Perhaps the few universities still offering such a class will continue to offer it. Perhaps classics will be studied by more than the handful of future classics professors who pass through university.

I’m not holding my breath.



*This article is me delivering my opinion with both barrels. I’m including this link to RAR so that if someone wants to see what the other side has to say, they can do that. I’m emphatically not posting this link for people to go be dicks to RAR. Please do not be dicks to RAR, a group of young human beings who believe they’re doing the right thing. Return to article


**The big argument against this assertion is that Greeks received much of their ideas from Egyptian, Phoenician, and Sumerian cultures. This has a lot of truth to it as I understand the argument, and I think a good classics education should be broadened to include Egyptian and Sumerian texts–a change which Reed college recently and correctly made to the Hum110 syllabus

As I understand things, however:

  • There are far more extant Greek texts than Egyptian, Phoenician, and Sumerian texts.
  • Greek thought builds on this foundation in important ways.
  • Most importantly, it is these Greek and Roman texts that Western writers have looked to for millennia. They are the texts that have most directly shaped Western thought, even if they did not spring fully formed from Greek and Roman heads.
    Return to article

About misanthrophile

A human person, mostly. I have opinions on a lot of stuff
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One Comment

  1. Joan Snodgrass Callaway

    I both loved and hated Hum 110 in 1950-51. What I deeply appreciated – the small discussion group under the direction of Dr. Dorothy Johanson, in which I learned the art of critical thinking. The writing of papers followed by a paper conference – a preparation for thesis work later. I’m not certain the subject mattered. It was the method.

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