Brian Leiter comments on the mindless identity politics among the Berkeley undergrads who demanded that a course on ‘classics of social theory’ (Plato to Foucault) should mirror the social justice interests of the privileged college students who chose it:
‘We must dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus. We must demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* authors on our curricula.”
‘Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? … Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?’
First, as Leiter notes, there is the humiliating fact that these students seem unaware that Foucault was gay. Not to mention the interesting case of Plato. And all those confirmed bachelors among the tyrants. Yet the students turn lavender contemplating their own firm belief that there are no ‘LGBTQ*’ authors on the curriculum.
They have a better complaint about sexism. It is troubling that Foucault makes the syllabus while none of Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir or Arendt do. Choices always need to be made, but to omit all of these is a poor one. And I also share the view that ‘classics’ of social theory might include something from the Asian philosophers.
But a question: I take it that these students, or nearly all of them, want Asian philosophers translated into English, the lingua franca of the white male corporate plutocracy that runs their state and nation? (California is the home of the US “English Only” movement.)
As far as I can see, that is how they were served their Plato and Aristotle, their Marx and Weber–and their Foucault. Or are Sanskrit, Pali and classical Chinese now more widely read among Cal undergrads than are Greek, German or French? Somehow I doubt it.
I have a feeling that the linguistic mono-culture of most American students is utterly invisible to them. That is how hegemonic blinders work. White students don’t see their own race; American students don’t see their own language. They want their identities to be reflected in their syllabus. But in one of the ways most salient to the humanities and social sciences, they already are–and not to good effect. Of course, ‘unilingual Anglophone’ is, for most American students, not a social ‘identity’ they are aware of, let alone one they care to reflect on and, perhaps, transcend. (Ditto, of course, for social class.)
It seems to me that a college education that leaves students–especially in the humanities– linguistically crippled is an ‘epistemically poor education’ if anything is. (I know: ‘What ableism!!)
It gets worse.
The students’ complaint is introduced, without comment, with this backgrounder:
“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.“
At first, I thought OK that is a pretty good reason to ‘occupy a syllabus’. Many American college students are racking up huge debts, and for what? A ‘classics of social theory’ course in which the instructors’ main tool of assessment is multiple-choice quizzes? (‘Hobbes is the foundation for unbridled capitalism: (a) Yes; (b) No; (c) I couldn’t get the reading.’)
It is easy to poke fun at the narcissistic self-involvement of privileged students who think everything should be a branch of “me studies“. In truth, thinking about one’s own identity can be a first step in thinking about others’ identities–and then a further step up the ladder to thinking about social identity as such. But not if you think the problem is just the poverty of the reading list, as opposed to one’s own impoverished ability to read beyond it.