Reed College Overhauling Humanities Course After Students Protest Western Focus

Student group says focus on Eurocentric Western civilization is outdated

Aristotle / Wikimedia Commons
February 4, 2018

Reed College has agreed to overhaul the syllabus of its centerpiece humanities course in a concession to students who have protested its Western focus.

Humanities 110, the interdisciplinary survey of antiquity, has been revised to include geographic regions beyond the current ancient Greco-Roman focus, it was announced in a campus email Thursday.

Beginning in Fall 2018, the freshman requirement will consist of four modules, each examining a separate city during a significant period of historical change. The first semester will cover much of the old Hum 110 content, focusing on Athens and Rome, to allow faculty time to determine the remainder of the curriculum. The Spring modules will likely look at two cities in the Americas, with Mexico City and New York named as tentative candidates.

Reed would not comment on whether selections from texts considered cornerstones of Western Civilization such as Plato and Aristotle would remain going forward.

"The ancient Mediterranean curriculum may or may not change. Any criticism is premature because we don't know what the curriculum is at this point," said Reed spokesperson Kevin Myers.

He described the course as not a Western Civ class at all, but as a class for developing the critical thinking, analysis, and writing abilities of first-year college students.

Throughout the 2017 fall semester, a group of about a dozen students calling themselves Reedies Against Racism surrounded the day's professor—Hum 110 is taught by a circulating roster of lecturers—in usually silent protest. One lecture session was cancelled.

Following the announcement of changes to the course, Reedies Against Racism voiced their continued dissatisfaction in a statement.

They rebuffed any continued study of white, male, Eurocentric Western Civilization as outdated, calling teaching the Western Canon "antiquated," and said that focusing on the Greco-Roman tradition in the first modules would be a perpetuation of "the racist notion that the West is the key to other civilizations."

"Antiquity can be taught without centering Western principles," they argued, suggesting Jerusalem and Cairo as the first semester cities.

Reedies Against Racism also criticized the absence of Africa from the proposed syllabus, accusing Reed of continuing "to marginalize black history and literature in its curriculum."

"It is dishonorable to continue omitting people of color from Reed's curriculum," read the statement. "The incoming Reedie exists in a world that extends beyond Western civilization—it would be irresponsible to stifle the intellectual curiosity of students seeking to explore that world."

Myers said no region has been taken off curricular consideration, and that assessment of a city's viability is based on the ability to have enough textual materials for discussion across history, anthropology, and literature.

The changes are a result of the regular curricular and pedagogical review of Hum 110 conducted every decade, which was done a year earlier than scheduled due to student pressure.

The students "gave a sense of urgency" to the evaluation, said Myers.

The humanities faculty managed the review in dialogue with a group of six student representatives, and a simple majority vote of the entire faculty adopted the alterations.