'Occupying the White Male Syllabus' at Berkeley

Jack Kerwick
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Posted: Jan 30, 2015 12:01 AM
'Occupying the White Male Syllabus' at Berkeley

Upon witnessing the trials of Nazi war criminals in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt remarked that they shared in common one salient feature: “it was not stupidity,” she said, “but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” This inability or refusal to think is on full display in a student editorial—“Occupy the Syllabus”—that was recently published by The Daily Californian.

Berkeley students Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perret “call” for an “occupation of syllabi” that was “instigated” by their experience in “an upper-division course in classical social theory.” The syllabus for this course is scandalous, for it “employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men.” Not “a single woman or person of color” was included.

These white theorists can’t relate to “the lives of marginalized peoples,” or “gender or racial oppression.” In fact, they didn’t “even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas.” When “race and gender” are mentioned in “the white male canon,” they “are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist.”

The student writers allege that “the classroom environment felt so hostile to women, people of color, queer folks and other marginalized subjects that it was difficult for us to focus on course material.” Even worse, there were times “when we felt so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of a lecture.”

The white male canon is a “tyranny,” Kazuo and Perret conclude, that students must “dismantle [.]” In its place, they must “demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer] authors on our curricula.”

What a pity. These poor students, like the vast majority of their peers in liberal arts departments around the country, have indeed been getting the shaft. But this is because they are not receiving an education at all; rather, it is training, or maybe indoctrination, in an ideology, a doctrine or creed, of which they are the unfortunate recipients.

It is obvious, so painfully obvious, that these Berkeley students are paralyzed by “the inability to think” to which Arendt alludes. Their essay amounts to a caricature of the Politically Correct orthodoxy, i.e. the militant leftist ideology, for which academia has become known—and for which it is routinely ridiculed. In an essay that can’t be more than a 1,000 words, there is scarcely a leftist stock phrase, cliché, or sacred cow that isn’t exploited.

The problem, though, is not that the students are incapable of thinking beyond leftist stock phrases and clichés; the problem is that they are incapable of thinking beyond stock phrases and clichés. As Arendt writes: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.”

Arendt admits that if “we were responsive to this claim [on our thinking attention] all of the time, we would soon be exhausted [.]” In other words, we must trade, at least much of the time, in “standardized codes of expression and conduct [.]” However, “the difference” between some of us and the average Nazi defendant that she observed is that the latter “clearly knew of no such claim” on his “thinking attention.”

And what was true in Eichmann seems equally true of these Berkeley students.

The latter can also be likened to some of Socrates’ pupils to whom Arendt refers, men who were not “content being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine,” a creed on which to hang their hats (italics added). Yet the activity of thinking “is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed” (italics added).

Substantively, of course, Kazuo’s and Perret’s comments are outrageous. The point here, though, is that even if there was truth to them, that they are framed in terms of all of the buzzwords of any orthodoxy—in this case, the prevailing orthodoxy at Berkeley and in academia generally—reveals the shallowness of their intellects.

Moreover, Kazuo’s and Perret’s op-ed serves as an indictment of the faculty and administrators of their institution. Not only has Berkeley (like colleges and universities throughout the land) failed miserably to supply their students (in the liberal arts) with an education, the ability and willingness to interrogate their own most cherished doctrines. Berkeley has actually supplied them with the doctrine that resulted in this essay: After all, can anyone really doubt that Kazuo and Perret are, from tip to tail, the children of Berkeley?

What’s ironic—richly ironic—is that it is largely their white male instructors that filled their heads with this conceptual claptrap in the first place.

Rather than occupying their instructors’ syllabi, the Kazuos and Perrets of the world would be much better served trying, for once, to occupy their own minds instead of allowing them to be fed with the dogmas and vapid slogans of their professors.