Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perret found their classroom environment at Berkeley hostile, even when their professor was lecturing on Karl Marx (!), because the Western canon is exclusively composed of works by dead, white, European males, not a single person of color or transgendered individual makes the cut.
We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.
We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity â€” economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) â€” are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.
The white male canon is not sufficient for theorizing the lives of marginalized people. None of the thinkers we studied in this course had a robust analysis of gender or racial oppression. They did not even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Mentions of race and gender in the white male canon are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist. We were required to read Hegel on the â€œOriental realmâ€ and Marx on the â€œAsiatic mode of production,â€ but not a single author from Asia. We were required to read Weber on the patriarchy, but not a single feminist author. The standardized canon is obsolete: Any introduction to social theory that aims to be relevant to todayâ€™s problems must, at the very least, address gender and racial oppression.
The exclusions on the syllabus were mirrored in the classroom. Although the professor said he wanted to make the theory relevant to present issues, the class was out of touch with the majority of studentsâ€™ lives. The lectures often incorporated current events, yet none of the examples engaged critically with gender or race. The professor even failed to mention the Ferguson events, even though he lectured about prisons, normalizing discourse and the carceral archipelago in Foucaultâ€™s â€œDiscipline and Punishâ€ the day after the grand jury decision on the murder of Michael Brown.
Furthermore, the classroom environment felt so hostile to women, people of color, queer folks and other marginalized subjects that it was difficult for us to focus on the course material. Sometimes, we were so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lecture. For example, when lecturing on Marxâ€™s idea of the â€œnatural division of labor between men and women,â€ the professor attributed some intellectual merit to this idea because men and women are biologically distinct from each other, because women give birth while men do not. One student asked, â€œWhat about trans* people?â€ to which the professor retorted, â€œThere will always be exceptions.â€ Then, laughing, the professor teased, â€œWe may all be transgender in the future.â€ Although one might be tempted to dismiss these remarks as a harmless attempt at humor, mocking trans* people and calling them â€œexceptionsâ€ is unacceptable.
Read the whole thing.
Myself, I’d argue that Plato may very possibly have swung both ways, and that Michel Foucault was a commie pervert who doesn’t belong in any serious version of the Western canon, but who should qualify perfectly as an excellent (and eminently repulsive) representative of all of the “marginalized” groups there are.
I’d suggest, additionally, that if you think “Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault” came from “England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States,” you probably need to acquire greater personal familiarity with the lives and ideas (and countries of origin) of the philosophers conventionally included in the Western canon, before you will be qualified to dispute over exactly who does, and who does not, deserve to be included.
Hat tip to Campus Reform.