A Tiresome Occupation: Cleansing the Syllabus

by Mark Gullick (August 2015)

[P]iety appears to her a tiresome occupation, and a confirmed enemy to all pleasure.
 — The Private Journal of Madame Campan

Student occupations, like the poor, will be always with us. There was one at my own university in the 1980s, protesting a slight increase in the already cheap and heavily subsidised rental tariff the university charged students to live on campus in pleasant and generous accommodation. Undergraduates broke into and occupied faculty buildings, destroying files and furniture, daubing slogans on walls and defecating in the office of the Dean.

I had recently directed a student production of Webster’s The White Devil at the university’s excellent theatre, and the show had been an unexpected hit. I was rather proud, having cast the play myself from the pool of student talent, set it in 1930s gangster Chicago, and composed and recorded the musical score myself. The show, by the standards of student economics, made a lot of money for re-investment in the next production. Unfortunately, the money was not ring-fenced, and it was all used up as part of the post-occupation clean-up. Perhaps that explains the rather sneering attitude I have when I hear about student occupation.

Occupy the Syllabus is a curious document produced at the start of this year by Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perret, students at UC Berkeley and, in Perret’s case (dare one say ‘Ms.’?), a tireless intern at something called the Gender Equity Resource Center. This call to academic arms has as its mission statement its second paragraph, reproduced here in full:

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity – economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) – are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardised canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 per cent of humanity.

The whole document repays inspection, and may be read here. Detailed critique is unnecessary as Occupy the Syllabus essentially satirises itself. It is the implication of its message which detains us here, not the message itself.

Modern progressivism is at heart grievance politics, the core of which is not universal principle, but identity predicated on being a victim of historical crimes like sexism and racism, and on suffering from wounding slights defined as such by the subjective criteria of the now privileged victim who is beyond judgement or criticism. (June 8, 2015)

Occupy the Syllabus is a similar rap sheet of inappropriate texts and oppressive readings. ‘We were required to read Hegel on the “Oriental realm” and Marx on the “Asiatic mode of production”, but not a single author from Asia’, it simpers, as though a text on the Industrial Revolution would be invalid without reading the diary of a rivetter as well. We note in passing that Karl Marx, an impecunious sponger, would be turning in his Highgate Cemetery grave to read himself described as ‘economically privileged’.

The professor even failed to mention the Ferguson events, even though he lectured about prisons, normalising discourse and the carceral archipelago in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish the day after the grand jury decision on the murder of Michael Brown.

And, lest ye scoff, think of the harm this type of ‘exclusionary education’ can do to today’s larval geniuses. Steel yourselves. ‘Sometimes,’ the authors shockingly inform us, ‘we were so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lectures.’

Thus, when the authors of Occupy the Syllabus state their wish to ‘dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus [and] demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ authors on our curriculum’, it may not be because they are social justice warriors, but because they find white culture – usually their own – too hard. Far easier to remove the difficulty by importing less demanding reading. One day, if the progressivists continue their long march, the curricular landscape of the universities will bring to mind Dorothy Parker’s decision to leave the New Yorker because every short story printed seemed to be about someone’s childhood in India.

At the end of a hateful document, however, love is all you need, and the authors of Occupy the Syllabus (surely coming as a set text to a university near you soon) finish with a challenge:

[I]f you have taken classes in the social sciences and humanities, we challenge you: Count the readings authored by white males and those authored by the majority of humanity. Then ask yourself: Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? [Emphasis added]

For, along with the desire to control dissident thought, this is what is at issue. If the syllabus cannot be turned into a ‘Me Report’ for a new, millennial generation of obtuse, ethnomasochistic, narcissistic praise junkies, then it must be consigned to the flames. Students today are cheerfully subverting the whole point of the university – free intellectual enquiry – in favour of bigoted, dogmatic orthodoxies to which the faculty will adhere if they wish to continue working. Today’s wobbly-lipped students resemble the Puritans, frightened lest someone, somewhere is dancing. Instead, this intolerant herd of simpletons will not and cannot feel safe in their learning environments if there is the remotest possibility that a fellow student is gaining intellectual sustenance from the oppressive tomes of dead white men. Black students and their self-hating white imperial guard can never rest easy as long as someone white, somewhere, might be enjoying Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or N-word of the Narcissus.

I am fortunate to have as my local theatre Shakespeare’s rebuilt (and relocated) Globe. At a recent performance of Richard II, I became aware of a group of South African students behind me becoming restless as we wound into Act II. At the interval, with Irish wars and rebellion looming, one of the students expressed dismay at finding there was a whole second half to go.

I suddenly felt glad I had gone to university in the 1980s rather than one of the anti-intellectual gulags of today. True, I was once hissed while presenting a seminar paper on Heidegger – because, you know, Heidegger was, like, a Nazi – but there was still a basic recognition that the white, male European canon provided the architecture of our heritage. Then, during their occupation, my student colleagues had merely thought it expedient to defecate on the Dean of faculty’s table. They had not been taught – yet – that it is necessary to relieve themselves on the graves of the dead white men who built Western culture.



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