This past semester I’ve had the immense pleasure of reading the work of a writer who fought for liberal values before they were cool. As early as the mid-19th century, he advocated for complete equality between the sexes, women’s rights to vote, access to education, and freedom from the tyranny of their husbands and fathers. He argued in favor of working-class suffrage and the right to birth control—he was once arrested for handing out pamphlets promoting contraception—and he championed abolition, contributing to the defeat of the Confederacy.
The writer I’m speaking of is, of course, John Stuart Mill. Mill has had a profound effect on my thinking, and if not for the Core Curriculum, I might never have read him. So it was with great dismay that I read a recent column by Liberty Martin, CC ’21, in which she asserts that the Columbia Core—which introduces students to thinkers from Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Nietzsche on one end of the spectrum, to W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mill on the other—is actually a veiled attempt at “indoctrination into white supremacy.”
My dismay congealed into distress when Martin claimed that Christian Gonzalez, CC ’20—who in a previous piece had defended the Core from similar charges—was himself indoctrinated into “Western cultural hegemony.” Moreover, she claimed, “those who strive to maintain the Core” are really motivated by their fear that “white supremacist holdover culture will erode over time.”
While I agree with Martin on some points, I feel obligated to push back on one: Christian’s opinion about the Core and the unique importance of the Western canon is a perfectly valid view to hold, not a covert defense of white supremacy by any stretch of the imagination. If we want to understand why the modern world differs so greatly from the ancient world, then we have to study Western intellectual history.
There’s a link between the Western canon and some of the moral progress humanity has enjoyed. Consider the fact that some form of slavery was practiced in nearly every major civilization on Earth for the past 10,000 years, but in the last 200 it has been eradicated virtually everywhere. How did that happen? The study of the Western canon offers a possible answer: While slavery was practiced everywhere, the earliest surviving written challenges to the practice of slavery came from Western writers. To be sure, people all over the planet had likely challenged slavery on moral grounds before the Enlightenment, but their thoughts are lost to history and thus harder to study. The writings of Enlightenment thinkers in 18th-century Europe laid the intellectual foundation for the modern conception of “human rights,” and slowly—but in the historical blink of an eye—their ideas proliferated throughout the world. In his book Freedom, Volume One, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson pointed out that “most human languages did not even have a word for the concept [of freedom] before contact with the West.”
To be clear, the Western canon is not the same as Western civilization. Many of the writers included in the Western canon were highly controversial in their own societies. Huge swaths of Western civilization resisted the notion of universal human rights, so much so that many Westerners chose to die in battle rather than give up their commitment to slavery and colonialism. To study the Western canon is not to revere everything Western civilization has done. In fact, it’s the opposite: The oldest surviving critiques of Western civilization come from the Western canon itself.
The Columbia Core tracks the intellectual path that the West has taken—the path that led from slavery, colonialism, and the subjugation of women to the historically unprecedented ethical values (like women’s rights, gay rights, and black civil rights, among others) that we now take for granted. It’s no coincidence that Martin Luther King, Jr. read many of the same Enlightenment thinkers that we do in Contemporary Civilization and Lit Hum. In his brilliant essay, My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, he speaks of reading Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, Locke, Marx, Gandhi, and Nietzsche—all of whom we read in the Core—and learning “a great deal from their study.” King basically put himself through the Core Curriculum. Was he also “indoctrinated into white supremacy?”
Every time we speak of human rights, we show our intellectual debt to the Western canon without realizing it. Many of the greatest ideas in history were first articulated by people who had the wealth, leisure time, and social license to spend all day writing—plus the privilege to live in literate societies with robust educational institutions and publishing companies. Because history did not distribute these privileges fairly, many of the oldest and most foundational texts that we have come from dead white men. It’s neither racist nor paranoid to worry that we’d lose something valuable by ridding the Core of their works, or as Martin suggests, keeping only “a few of their essential readings.” If we don’t know the intellectual history of the culture we live in, then we become like the person who climbs a ladder, kicks it away, and then claims to have reached the roof all on their own.
It doesn’t trouble me that people disagree on the validity of the Core, but it does trouble me that the tone of the disagreement reaches peak hostility so quickly. Rather than leave a trail of reputational casualties in its wake, our discourse should aim to be as civil as it possibly can. In On Liberty, Mill wrote, “The worst offence … that can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” When someone says something that you find incorrect or offensive, by all means, disagree with them, but be cautious about accusing them of indoctrination into a racial supremacist ideology—you might stain their reputation over a mundane difference of opinion.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in philosophy.
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