As I walk through Columbia’s campus, I have a very different reaction to the architecture and the physical location than does Luke Foster, the author of last week’s Eye lead, “The College of the Crown and Cross.”
Foster writes about the way in which the architecture of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus reflects Columbia’s foundation in the liberal arts tradition. The ionic columns of Butler, the names inscribed on its façade, and the McKim, Mead, and White buildings create a campus whose “rich legacy … adds to our education,” according to Foster.
To Foster, the Core and buildings like Butler give us “a tremendous sense of empowerment.” I am not surprised that Foster and I might have such different reactions to the architecture and the intellectual traditions surrounding us. Instead, I’m worried.
In my experience, the Core, as well as the liberal arts tradition upon which Columbia is founded, actually fosters a very uncritical dialogue. The liberal arts tradition is idolized, but the impact of its education is rarely addressed. The crucial point of the tradition is forgotten: The liberal arts and the foundation of Columbia are part of a production of knowledge that has enabled centuries of domination, not necessarily critical thought.
As I look up at the names etched onto Butler’s façade, I think of Aristotle’s true genius. This genius lies not in his “ethical psychology,” but rather in his ethics, in the way he has deluded so many people into accepting the status quo and thinking uncritically. As often as Aristotle teaches the importance of critical thought, his ethics also teach subservience and a rigid social hierarchy.
When I look at Homer’s name, I don’t think of him as the founder of epic poetry—which, by the way, he is not—but rather as one of the first articulators of a violent form of masculinity that has led to a devastating amount of sexual violence and damaging emotional restriction for people on all sides of the gender spectrum.
When I see Augustine and Aquinas, I don’t see the glory of Christianity. I see my white ancestors colonizing the minds of brown bodies thousands of miles away in India. I see the justification of the destruction of my indigenous ancestors in Mexico by this same whiteness and colonization.
When I think of Roman law I don’t think of a great system of justice but of a foundation for the injustices we have inherited, which are far more efficient as tools of control and enslavement of black and brown bodies than as a system of justice.
The fact that we are glorifying these figures and ideas instead of understanding their historically important context within an intellectual tradition of domination is worrying to say the least. When we separate these thinkers from the destruction that their knowledge has been used to defend, we slip into perpetuating that destruction ourselves.
Foster is correct in saying that “Our campus presents the West’s intellectual tradition as climaxing in the founding of the United States.” The United States is a nation founded upon the enslavement of blacks, the genocide of indigenous people, rampant racism, and settler colonialism, which undoubtedly form the climax in this tradition of domination. In this sense, it is the climax of the way the liberal arts tradition has enabled domination.
When we blindly deify the liberal arts tradition and the ideas that are enmeshed in the architecture of our campus, we fail to see the destruction that this tradition and these ideas have caused in order to gain their dominance.
This is why, when I think of Columbia, I think also of the genocidal colonialist after which our University is named, rather than the liberal arts tradition Foster’s essay celebrates.
Whom has our venerated liberal tradition destroyed and trampled in order to become dominant? Whose histories have been erased? Who has been silenced, displaced, or annihilated, or who has experienced genocide and violence in order for our structure of knowledge to survive as dominant? And what can we do to begin to heal these past and current wounds?
These are the questions our student body should be asking itself—not unanswerable questions about God and salvation.
We need to ask ourselves how we participate in this domination and destruction on an everyday basis and how we can begin to heal a world which has been so damaged by this tradition. The Core and the liberal arts can be incredibly powerful, but only when seen as an intellectual tradition founded in domination, not as one to be glorified.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies.
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