Zachary Wood ’18, co-President of Uncomfortable Learning and an EphBlog favorite, wrote an article in The Nation titled “You Shouldn’t Have to Take an African-American Studies Course to Read African-American Authors.” Let’s discuss if for a few days. Today is Day 2.
At most colleges in the United States, students have to take courses in African-American studies to read the work of black thinkers in an academic setting. Meanwhile, the work of white male authors is taught in virtually every course that does not focus specifically on the experience of nonwhites.
Well, isn’t that because the most important work in, say, philosophy was written by whites, or at least not by blacks? (Leave aside complications as to whether “whites” would cover people born 2,000 years ago in places like Turkey and about how the authors in the Indian/Asian philosophical traditions might be categorized.) There are only so many spots in the syllabus. Every time you add person X, you need to subtract person Y.
I am a sophomore at Williams College, majoring in political science and philosophy. Throughout my freshman year, I took seven courses in the humanities and social sciences, from English and philosophy to political science and anthropology. Yet only two of the seven courses incorporated the critical thought and perspectives of at least one scholar of African descent.
I don’t know exactly which courses Zach took, but consider the lowest numbered course in Philosophy at Williams:
PHIL 109 T(F) Skepticism and Relativism
Intellectually, we are ready skeptics and relativists. We doubt, we point out that no one can be certain in what she believes, and we are suspicious of declarations of transcendent reason or truth (unless they are our own). Emboldened by our confidence in skeptical arguments, we claim that knowledge is inevitably limited, that it depends on one’s perspective, and that everything one believes is relative to context or culture. No domain of inquiry is immune to this destructive skepticism and confident relativism. Science is only “true” for some people, agnosticism is the only alternative to foolish superstition, and moral relativism and, consequently, nihilism are obvious.
See the link for more details. Thanks to former EphBlogger Joe Cruz for sharing the syllabus (pdf). Do you see any African-American writers? I don’t.* Nor should there be! If you only have 12 weeks to cover such a broad topic, you need to focus on the best and most important work. That no writing by a black author makes that cut is no more surprising to me than the fact that none of the 64 starting cornerbacks in the NFL is white. Is it really surprising to you?
*Even if there is an African-American writer, Wood’s and my points still stand. I have no reason to doubt that Wood’s intro philosophy classes had no black writers and every reason to believe that this omission is caused, not by the racism of Williams faculty, but by the relative merits of the works under consideration.