Why Everyone Should Learn About Western Civilization

Students are protesting Reed College’s foundational humanities curriculum. What they may be missing is that core texts are just a starting point.

A row of books of European history and philosophy
Eddie Keogh / Reuters

My alma mater is, for better or worse, the undergraduate equivalent of a cult film: Most people have never heard of Reed College, and the few who have really like to argue about it.

So it’s disconcerting when arguments usually confined to the Reed campus attract national attention. In recent days, a Washington Post column and a much-read Atlantic article have described, in disturbing detail, ongoing student protests against the perceived Eurocentrism of Humanities 110, a rigorous, year-long examination of the ancient Greeks and their neighbors required of all first-year Reed students. Since the protests began, in September 2016, protesters have repeatedly disrupted classes, intimidated lecturers, and bullied other students both online and off. (To be clear, the mission of Reedies Against Racism, the campus group that started the protests, is broader than Hum 110 reform, and its stated demands are less extreme than some members’ rhetoric and behavior suggest.)

Many Reed alumni—most of us no strangers to political protest—are appalled by these tactics, and plenty of current students are, too: This fall, a large segment of the incoming class, led primarily by students of color, has called for the restoration of order to the Hum 110 lecture hall.

Obscured by the campus cacophony, though, is a worthwhile—and necessary—discussion about whether anyone should read the ancient Greeks in the first place, and if so why and how. That discussion has been underway at Reed for decades, and with any luck it will continue for decades to come. As someone who took Hum 110 more than 20 years ago, the news from campus has made me reflect on what I learned in the course. The answers, both equally true, are that I didn’t learn very much—and that I learned everything.

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.

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about some classical theater she’d seen. “I enjoyed it,” she said, “but I don’t feel like it’s really mine.” She wasn’t talking about representation, about whether someone who looked or acted like her had appeared on stage. She just felt that despite her smarts, and her multiple graduate degrees, she wasn’t familiar enough with the work to engage with it. I barely remember enough from Hum 110 to fill in the classical clues in a crossword puzzle, and I’ve never studied literary criticism in any serious way. But by exposing the roots of the narrative known as Western civilization, Hum 110 opened a door to me that’s never closed.

While I’ve doubted myself in many ways during the two decades since I took Hum 110, I’ve never doubted my and others’ right to question anything and anyone, from the epic of Gilgamesh to the tall tales of our present-day kings. What I really learned in Hum 110 is that the ancient Greeks—and the rest of our collective cultural ancestries, for that matter—are mine. They’re mine and yours and theirs and ours, to honor with our sharpest spears.

This post appears courtesy of The Last Word On Nothing.