“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

7 Responses to ““White men” as a curriculum”

  1. feministkilljoys Says:

    I very much appreciate this engagement with my earlier post ‘White Men’ and the analysis you offer here of the walls otherwise known as curriculum (I wrote about how doing diversity work within institutions requires being ‘pushy’ in my book, On Being Included), but I wonder given my own post was also the politics of citation whether in addition to linking to my post you might have cited me by name? Otherwise the citational chain remains unbroken unless you, as it were, follow the link?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I will change it to include your name. Sorry — I suppose I let myself get too clever for my own good there.

  3. Sara ahmed Says:

    No need to apologise. Thanks for being so responsive! And for your work here too.

  4. Kampen Says:

    Reminds me of a comment a friend of mine likes to make when he addresses white audiences. He says “I have a PhD in Caucasian Studies. I have studied you all my life.” He’s Cayuga from Six Nations.

  5. Elliott Grieco Says:

    I have unfortunately have run into a some unproductive approaches to non-white/male incorporation; for example, serving an even more “comfortable” ameliorative function in “explaining away” the weak points of “influential” white men.

  6. George Says:

    Unless you’re a classicist, this is almost the opposite of what modern syllabi look like. The pendulum has surely swung the other way entirely. Maybe at shitty schools this might still be true, but that’s foremost about cultural assimilation into what “educated” means.


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