Reed Students Say Humanities 110 Should Not Include White or European Authors

Students at an Oregon liberal arts college launch a self-defeating crusade for a more diverse curriculum.


Socrates contemplating whiteness

Reedies Against Racism, a student group at Reed College, is demanding that the school's Humanities 110 course remove all European texts and replace them with non-European reading materials as "reparations for Humanities 110's history of erasing the histories of people of color, especially black people."

Whitewashed curricula are worth fighting. But the Oregon college will repeat the error in the opposite direction if it decides that European and Mediterranean authors have nothing to contribute by virtue of their whiteness.

The activists already lobbied successfully for the Hum 110 (as it is called) curriculum to be altered, through a series of protests in early April. These entailed interruptions of classes and thus clashes with other students and professors, at least one of whom understandably disagreed with the idea that the course represented "white supremacy."

The class, which is required for first-year students, will now have four different modules. The first two will still be centered around Athens and the ancient Mediterranean, while the third and fourth will focus on Mexico City from the 15th to 20th centuries and Harlem during the first half of the 20th century.

Now Reedies Against Racism want the first and second modules to be changed to Jerusalem and Cairo. They also claim that important texts will be cut from the course—including the Epic of Gilgamesh and Egyptian love poems, which were initially in the Mediterranean modules—to make room for the Mexico City and Harlem units, undermining the diversity the students sought in the first place.

In the group's own words, "the first semester of Humanities 110 will become actually less diverse than it was before, because all of the non-white texts in the course will be taught after the Greek and Roman content, during the second semester."

Apparently placement of modules matters, too. "Reed freshmen will still receive the message that learning about white culture is more urgent and foundational to a college education."

Several professors have pushed back against the notion that the course is whitewashed or overly Eurocentric. "The idea that Hum 110 is a 'white' course is very strange to me," Professor Jay Dickson tells Reed Magazine. "It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless." Other instructors have noted that the course considers parts of Egypt and Iran within the purview of the Mediterranean, and still others argue that the label "Western" is too broad and monolithic.

Even if the ancient Mediterranean authors read in the course are considered "white," it's odd to claim that they contain little to no value, especially when taught through a critical lens. According to Reed Magazine, the yearlong course was created in 1943 by combining intro-level literature and history courses. Students "read the plays of Sophocles, for example, as both literature and philosophy; they look at Moses as both a spiritual figure and as a politician." The class orients itself around discussion and debate, and has (in the past) centered around the ancient Mediterranean world "because of its enormous influence on the subsequent history of Europe and America."

But the course isn't unserious or uncritical of ancient power structures. "Students explore gender and ethnicity in the Book of Esther and examine how women are systematically silenced in the Iliad," the magazine notes. "They read Apuleius's Golden Ass as a subversive narrative which offers savage insight into the brutal power relations of imperial Rome."

All texts should be examined critically, and many cultures are worthy of study. The old axiom that history is written by the victors should lead any good scholar to consider which biases inform the things we learn and the way we learn them. But that's no reason to throw out important perspectives simply by nature of their authors' whiteness—especially when that whiteness is itself in dispute.