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Celebrating the Texts of Those ‘Dead White Males’

A debate Columbia University has some hating on the Western canon, while others apologize for it. Why not embrace it?

Columbia University is distinctive for continuing to teach the Western canon to its students. The Core Curriculum, commonly referred to as “the Core,” is compulsory for all Columbia undergraduates; it includes mandatory courses in Western music, philosophy, literature, and art. Over the years, however, the Core has been heavily criticized, primarily by a small number of radical student activists who denounce what is in their view a racist curriculum unduly dominated by the writings of “dead white males.”

Every few months, some race-related incident in the news compels Columbia’s administrators to come out and justify their pedagogical approach to the canon. Self-conscious and apologetic in tone, the arguments they offer tend to be unconvincing.

A pair of essays published in Columbia’s student newspaper last December demonstrate the cognitive dissonance that characterizes the Columbia establishment’s defense of its own curriculum. One was written by Joanna Stalnaker, chair of the Western literature course (titled “Literature Humanities”); the other by Emmanuelle Saada, chair of the Western philosophy course (titled “Contemporary Civilization”). In their pieces, the professors set out to explain the purposes of their respective courses.

Stalnaker opens her case on unobjectionable grounds. She claims that there is value to having all undergraduates read the same body of texts. Given that the cultural background of the student body is diverse, the classroom experience that results when everybody engages the same books while bringing to bear their different cultural experiences will be intellectually nourishing and exciting. This is a fair enough position, but it does not necessarily provide a reason to read the Western canon. If the Core exists only so as to allow undergraduates to read the same texts, then those texts might as well be a diverse collection of the world’s great cultural traditions. Privileging the Western tradition, as the Core currently does, would remain unjustified.

But let us set that problem aside and examine what Stalnaker means by “engaging” the texts of the Western canon. For her, the form of that engagement is what’s key. “To engage with the Core,” she explains, “is not necessarily to embrace it: engagement can take the form of a course paper or [an]…op-ed that identifies gaps and exclusions in the syllabus and offers critical responses to them.” A substantial part of the reason why the canon is worthwhile, then, is that studying it allows us to better understand its shortcomings. Indeed, Stalnaker goes on, “Courses like Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization provide a venue for debating the very notion of Western civilization and the gaps, exclusions, and fictions it entails.”

The logic of this argument self-defeating. If the Core exists solely for students to knock it down, then its demise is a foregone conclusion. Columbia cannot sustain the teaching of a curriculum that it openly acknowledges to be racist and otherwise problematic, because if it is those things, then why bother teaching it all?

A fascinating though regrettable consequence of Stalnaker’s argument is that it reduces the canon debate at Columbia to a curious binary: radical students who would like to see the Core abolished on one side, versus the Columbia establishment that hopes to preserve the Core on the other. The former insists that the Western canon propagates white supremacy and should therefore not be read; the latter counters by agreeing that while, yes, the canon is characterized by “gaps, exclusions, and fictions,” it is still worth engaging with it, the better to subvert and criticize it. Those who believe that the canon ought to be read simply because it is our patrimony as residents of a Western nation are rendered voiceless in the discussion. Such a perspective is not considered legitimate. Instead, the debate takes place almost entirely between different factions of the Left, each of them holding a basically disparaging view of the canon. In the meantime, everybody else is forced to spectate from the sidelines, waiting as the Left resolves what’s merely an internal disagreement.

Professor Saada’s defense of Contemporary Civilization (the Western philosophy course) largely reinforces the binary parameters of this debate. Although she begins by correctly noting that it is important to read the canon because its texts, from the Bible to The Wealth of Nations, have shaped the world in which we live, her view nonetheless seems to be that those texts have primarily shaped it for the worse. The bulk of her essay is thus devoted to proving that one can wield the writings of the Western tradition as a weapon against it. Hence, part of the course’s purpose is to allow one to, as she puts it, “[understand] the processes of interpretation and erasure that allowed those authors to be identified as contributors to a singular, dominant tradition. And [the course] involves evaluating what this process marginalized or discounted, from whole categories of people to ideas.” One example of such exclusion is the “systematic erasure by European writers” of Islam’s contribution to Western philosophy.

Saada adds that the course she chairs helps foster a deeper understanding of “the imperial and racialized worst of Western civilization.” Further, the course elucidates “the contributions and limits of the [classic] liberal tradition to understandings of race and gender,” explores how racism and classism were “not deplorable tangents” in the thought of men like Locke and Aristotle but rather “integral parts of their philosophies,” and explains “how sexism and racism have been woven into “‘Western civilization.’”

In sum, even in the words of those defending the canon at Columbia, the purpose of the Core is to teach students the processes by which the West generated some of the most revolting practices and beliefs in human history.


Of course, the form and content of the Columbia establishment’s justification of its curriculum do have to be understood in context. It is, after all, students on the far Left whom that establishment seeks to persuade; the defense of the West must therefore be articulated in terms palatable to the Left. And yet, notwithstanding the context, the trouble remains that the Left’s case for the canon—or at least this particular variety of it—isn’t very compelling.

A more compelling argument for the canon would have to start by advancing a far more balanced account of Western history. Stalnaker is right to note that the West has historically excluded entire categories of people from the benefits of citizenship; Saada, in turn, is right to call our attention to the West’s record of racist oppression. Entirely missing from their essays, however, are such terms as “democracy,” “national self-determination,” “civic equality,” “reason,” “scientific innovation,” “free inquiry,” “abolitionism,” “individualism,” “human rights,” and “the rule of law.” More conspicuous in their absence are the contributions of the West to our modern notions of all these things.

To borrow from something Christopher Hitchens once wrote in a very different context, what Stalnaker and Saada describe as the main legacy of the West is only “what Western [leftists] don’t like and can’t defend about their own system,” but in doing so they give insufficient credit to what the West has produced by way of “what [leftists] do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.” Supporting the canonical texts of the West is much easier if one grants that Western history contains not just great moral abominations, but also great moral triumphs.

Without a doubt, almost no writer—no matter how positive his or her disposition toward the West might be—will dare claim that Western heritage is without its faults. An assertion like that would be ignorant at best and bigoted at worst. Even Niall Ferguson, often described as a cheerleader for the West, concedes as much. “No serious writer,” he writes, “would claim that the reign of Western civilization was unblemished.” But, he goes on, “The West was Janus-faced, capable of nobility yet also capable of turpitude…. Competition and monopoly; science and superstition; freedom and slavery; curing and killing; hard work and laziness—in each case, the West was father to both the good and the bad.”

Ferguson does conclude that “it was just…[that] the better of the two brothers ultimately came out on top”—a conclusion with which people could reasonably disagree. But it is a nonstarter to deny the achievements of the West or to reduce its legacy to one of conquest, racism, and sexism. Assessments of Western thought and history that only reference its accomplishments are rightly seen as chauvinistic. So why is it deemed acceptable to focus, as Saada does, only on the reprehensible ideas it has produced? Intellectual fairness demands that we be rigorous and take into account both the positives and the negatives.

In the last analysis, however, the most convincing argument in favor of the canon cannot rest on whether the “balance sheet” of the Western legacy is good or evil. Rather, it must take a cue from Burke and point out a simple fact: the Western legacy, for those of us who live here at least, is our own. Just as students in the Muslim world should study the Koran and the history of Islam, and just as students in China should study the Chinese classics, so too should students in the West engage with our own heritage—because it is ours. Whether that heritage is “net good” or “net bad” is a secondary concern. More important is possessing the knowledge needed to trace the genealogy of the ideas in the world around us, to understand the history of the intellectual trends (from Christianity to the Enlightenment) that created our surroundings, to have a point of comparison between our current circumstances and those of the past societies that most shaped the present.

If the Columbia establishment (and other university establishments facing similar challenges) persists in its refusal to offer a nuanced portrayal of Western history, and if it furthermore refuses to infuse even a minimal amount of cultural Burkeanism into its defense of the Western canon, then it will continue to be steamrolled and backed into a corner by student activists. As noted above, Columbia cannot long maintain that the West is fundamentally racist and wicked and that the texts it has produced are nevertheless worthy of being preserved. If one accepts the premises of critical race theory, in other words, it becomes very difficult to resist its conclusions.

To their credit, those who presently staff the Columbia establishment seem genuinely committed to preserving the canon. But for them to succeed in making their case, certain stands must be taken, certain arguments must be sharpened, and certain falsehoods must be refuted.

Christian Gonzalez is originally from Venezuela, but was raised in Miami, Florida. He now studies political science at Columbia University. He can be reached at cag2240@columbia.edu.



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