How Student Protesters Cheat Themselves

One common complaint of protesting students is the old multiculturalist argument that the curriculum is too white and male and Western.  The petition filed by students at Seattle University is a case in point.

Once again, we have outlandish allegations of racism and harassment leveled against one of the most progressive enclaves on Planet Earth, the liberal arts campus.  The students term it “a longstanding history of oppression,” and their “concerns are urgent and necessitate an immediate response” (another feature of the protests is the note of desperate need on the students’ part).  How else to respond to “being ridiculed, traumatized, othered, tokenized, and pathologized”?

In this case, the curriculum bears a big part of the blame.  The humanities departments at Seattle don’t induct students into the civilization of Sophocles, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Rousseau, and Mozart, the petition says.  They don’t raise the humanitas of the students who pass through it.  No, the curriculum does the opposite.  It “ignores and erases the humanity of its students and of peoples around the globe.”

And so they demand a “non-Eurocentric interdisciplinary curriculum.”  This new formation will “decentralize Whiteness,” which means that John Milton will enjoy no more prestige than do contemporary African writers.  The old themes of faith, courage, mortality, and love will give way to “a critical focus on the evolution of systems of oppression such as racism, capitalism, colonialism, etc.”

In accord with the personnel side of campus identity politics, the students insist that these new courses be taught by “prepared staff from marginalized backgrounds, especially professors of color and queer professors.”  (The students don’t explain how queerness advances the non-Eurocentric focus.)  The instructors are to follow, too, a “decolonizing and anti-racist pedagogy.”

The puffery is absurd, of course, but there’s a pedagogical point to make as well.  Any administrator and professor who accede to these demands is guilty of academic fraud.  The reason goes back to E. D. Hirsch’s argument about cultural literacy made three decades ago.

When his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know appeared in 1987, it was interpreted as a conservative brief against multiculturalism. Critics said that it reinforced Eurocentric and patriarchal values at a time when minority and women’s voices were on the rise.  That’s because Hirsch and his colleagues had compiled a list of facts, names, dates, and other items of information that an American needed to know in order to participate fully in civic and professional life.

Yes, the list was heavy on European-derived materials, but this was only because the culture of American civic and professional life was the same way.  Indeed, one of Hirsch’s reasons for including an item in his list was that such things commonly found their way into op-eds in the New York Times.  Hirsch, himself a lifelong Democrat, reasoned that if disadvantaged students were to rise in American society, they had to know such things.  If they didn’t they wouldn’t do well on SAT and GRE exams, would struggle in college classes, and would feel out of place in professional settings.  Teaching cultural literacy, then, Eurocentric and traditional in content, was a solid progressive project.

Hirsch’s arguments remain firm.  American mass culture has grown more diverse in the last three decades, but the deep references found in civic life and professional spheres, not to mention on standardized tests, are still predominantly Eurocentric.  I just picked up the Times op-ed page, went six paragraphs into Charles Blow’s contribution (“Trump’s Chance to Reboot”) and found the words “narcissism” and “protean.”  Does anyone doubt that a little knowledge of Narcissus and Proteus enriches a reader’s understanding of the opinion?

In demanding a non-Eurocentric curriculum that highlights racism et al, students not only implant an adversarial mindset of resentment, one that despises the only society in which they will find success and happiness.  The students also deprive themselves of the background knowledge they will need as they strive to improve their lives.  They are setting themselves up for estrangement and insecurity.  And, sad to say, instead of realizing that the inferior education they have received is one reason for their future dissatisfaction, they will use the anti-Eurocentrism position as an explanation for it.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

10 thoughts on “How Student Protesters Cheat Themselves

  1. a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Wm. Shakespeare

  2. When all truth is relative…when there is no heaven, no hell, no God, then everything is permitted. One curriculum no better, no worse than another. Dostoevsky or Snoop Dogg…. Yeats or Lil Wayne…. Why bother?

    To read this, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate”…. or that, ““Bitches ain’t sh*t but hoes and tricks” If we seek not education; if we reject enlightenment; if we choose the onanistic celebration of our own anger, fear, and ignorant resentment over the human struggle to rise, to transcend, to become something (anything!) more than just a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas — why then what we see at Seattle…at Brown….at Amherst….Princeton…Claremont (the list is long & growing) makes perfect sense.

    “It was unearthly, and the men were–No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it–this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity–like yours–the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you–you so remote from the night of first ages–could comprehend.” And so we make ourselves another & different kind of Munich to avoid another & different kind of conflagration.

    ““He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Here children, let us hand you the keys.

  3. Since Seattle students feel that their humanities curriculum is Euro-centric, then I encourage them to study the spread of Islam in the last 1,400 years in Northern Africa & Middle East; and the degree to which majority-Muslim nations implement tolerance & diversity.

  4. The author’s point seems to be that not studying the humanities leaves today’s students at a loss to fully understand cultural references like “narcissism” and “protean” in, say, op-eds published in the more important newspapers.

    Have you considered that perhaps words like “narcissism” and “protean.” should be removed from the English language instead? As a start, words like those should be referred to as ‘cis-words’, because to call them ‘words’ or ‘literary references’ implies that it’s considered ‘normal’ to understand them.

    I propose that we call this new effort to clean up the English language ‘Newspeak’.

  5. As the author points out, the reason the classics are considered important is that they illuminate timeless truths about the human condition. One of the problems with the students’ demands is that they lump all non-European authors together and their reason for including these other voices amounts to a negative — They are not of the other group.

    If they are truly serious they should take the time to study the authors they propose and indicate why each should be included in the curriculum; what great truth or lesson is revealed by their substitute.

    If they do that and it makes sense then I see nothing wrong with adding to the syllabus, but reason, not emotion must prevail.

  6. By the way, the protest took a form of demanding the resignation of the college’s dean, who has served for 30 years with distinction and compassion. SU’s cowardly president, Stephen Sundborg, accepted her (forced) resignation last week.

  7. The protestors wish to substitute indoctrination for education. A liberal education encourages becoming widely read of intellectually demanding authors in order to develop the ability to have sound reasons for the opinions that students form. This provides the valuable real-world skill of being able to develop cogent opinions and defend them. Indoctrination, on the other hand, merely reinforces preconceived ideas. After completing their degrees, indoctrinated students have only the ability to parrot what they learned. As years go by, the indoctrination becomes timeworn and useless, even quaint, and the graduates who have not learned to think and form a judgment will be increasingly unable to be effective in society. As a person who sometimes hires new graduates into professional positions, this is worrisome. I need effective professionals who can think and act appropriately, and achieve required results. I cannot hire empty-headed new graduates.

  8. It is patently, painfully obvious that these recurring rounds of demands from teenagers, these little pageants they put on for themselves so they can admire themselves strutting and fretting their hour upon a stage they themselves built for that sole purpose, cannot be accorded any intellectual value or seriousness whatsoever, nor refuted on any such basis. That this is so is conclusively proved by the fact that these students are demanding they be taught what they already (think they) know. They simply want to hear and read the words they memorized before ever setting foot on campus. That’s not learning; that’s liturgy. Sacramental manduction (manduction–how that word must sting the snowflakes!). In a church one does not think; one hymns. Prof. Bauerlein and others may spend their time disproving the dogma, but the only way to actually bring a halt to this nonsense is for college faculties and administrators to just say “No,” without further discussion, and invite the petulant children to seek solace elsewhere.

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