I didn’t learn very much in Hum 110 because I was 17, half-asleep—lectures were and still are held first thing in the morning, three times a week—terribly shy, and recently heartbroken, with only the foggiest sense of how fortunate I was to attend a small, selective, and expensive liberal-arts school. I slogged through the Hum 110 readings and wrote the required papers, but I can’t say that the words of Herodotus, Sappho, or Homer really sank in.
And yet they did. What I learned in Hum 110 is that so-called Western civilization is a narrative much like any other—except that it happens to affect just about everyone on earth. No matter where we were born or what we look like or what we believe, the narrative of Western civilization is part of the cultural water we swim in. By taking me back to the origins of that narrative, Hum 110 did me the great favor of hauling it into view—and impressing me with the universal right and duty to question it.
Members of Reedies Against Racism argue that Hum 110 simply perpetuates the most familiar version of the Western-civilization narrative—that positioning Plato and Aristotle at the very center of the college curriculum helps ensure their continued influence, along with the continued silencing of other voices from the past. This is worth considering: The study of classical literature is, historically and indisputably, extremely white and male, and those perspectives have unduly shaped the narrative that’s shaped all of us. As the field of classics has diversified, its members have started to recognize and reform its longstanding blind spots, but it’s a slow process. At the same time, members of far-right groups are enthusiastically adopting outdated views of the ancient world to further their own noxious ends.
To many of the campus protesters, then, the Hum 110 syllabus looks like a monument overdue for toppling; online discussions have even compared it to the Confederate flag. But after taking the course myself, and digesting its lessons over half a lifetime, I don’t think this analogy holds up. The syllabus was revised many times before I walked into the Hum 110 lecture hall, and it’s been revised many times since. New critical perspectives have been added, the geography of the course has expanded, and original texts have come and gone. (Another revision, accelerated in response to the recent protests, is forthcoming this fall.) The syllabus is more diverse, as is the faculty that teaches it and the student body that reads it. This is not to say that the syllabus is perfect—far from it. It’s to say that it isn’t carved in stone—and unlike a monument or a flag, it’s not meant to teach reverence. In fact, Hum 110 is intended to teach precisely the opposite.
In my experience, the Hum 110 syllabus wasn’t a tool of exclusion but a route to inclusion. Hum 110 gave me the gumption to alter the modern-day holy text of Tolkien so that my daughter can see herself in it; it taught me to adore seeing Medea relocated to contemporary Los Angeles, or Julius Caesar performed in fatigues, or Hotspur and Lady Hotspur played by two women. These are small things, but they’re part of a general attitude I acquired during my first year at Reed. I respect the beauty and boldness and skill displayed in all these texts, and I respect the expertise of those who devote their lives to studying them. But I learned in Hum 110 that to respect a text is to keep experimenting with it, and to keep testing its relevance. Some of these works have already survived thousands of years of scrutiny; let’s see if they can take a few millennia more.