An anonymous SLE student defends the Western canon’s prominence in Stanford’s year-long residential humanities program.
As a low-income student of color in SLE, I have witnessed thinkers I admire reach conclusions I do not. John Locke, for example, took the radical stance of defending equality for all regardless of social status, but also used his arguments to justify class exploitation. Supporting Locke, according to some, is tantamount to dismissing the injustices of gentrified neighborhoods, depressed wages, and bloated landholdings. But I do not refuse to read Locke. Nor should anyone erase Lockean thought from the curriculum. Instead, all of us should cherish questioning and undermining his reasoning through a SLE education.
I do not presume to speak for all marginalized identities within SLE. I do, however, speak for students tired of being bombarded with message upon message emphasizing the horrors of being uncomfortable. Occasional negative emotional reactions to texts do not justify suppressing the intellectual wonder and curiosity those same texts bring.
I speak from the rarely-publicized perspective of students who are happy with SLE as it stands. SLE ought to maintain a focus on the Western canon to allow students to explore difficult questions, interrogate seminal texts, and promote intellectual community. Students may feel uncomfortable in light of the viewpoints they encounter, but the burden should remain on individuals to resolve tensions for themselves. Issues of identity, such as race or class, should provide no excuse for refusing to engage wholeheartedly with the SLE curriculum.
The Western canon should be at the forefront of a SLE education, even if non-Western texts are discussed. Since all SLE students live in Western society and learn in Western educational systems, it is crucial that we – especially those seeking to subvert aspects of Western ideology – understand the core of Western thought. Doing so would reveal how some thinkers within the canon, such as Marx, were marginalized in the development of the West as we know it.
There is nothing inevitable about the trajectory the West has taken. Instead, the West arose from some ideas being preferred over and refuting others in the canon. We are all free to imagine that the West could have turned out differently. Just knowing this – that no Western philosophy is inevitable, and all is up for debate – is a reminder that effecting change and evolution is possible.
In addition, the Western canon poses universal questions concerning how people should live. Timeless issues – such as the meaning of love, the nature of morality, and how to achieve human flourishing – may have answers indexed to particular cultures and times, but that should not preclude them from having universal import. The questions posed by the canon keep being asked regardless of a thinker’s time or place. For example, the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Rousseau and the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi both inquired into the corrupting influence of society on human nature, despite being thousands of years and miles apart. The Western canon serves as a starting point for a more inclusive dialogue on the nature of a common humanity, unbounded by concerns for individual cultures.
Though non-Western or marginalized Western perspectives are also worthy of discussion within SLE, the views embedded in the Western canon remain the best starting points for conversations to build upon. Even if SLE instated more non-Western texts, it would be unreasonable to expect students to reach great depths of understanding around cultures they have limited time to become acquainted with. Instead of assuming fellow students to be versed in non-Western perspectives, it would be far wiser to broach difficult conversations on topics within the canon. That way, conversation can begin on a more sophisticated level without forcing students to relearn the fundamentals.
Despite the merits of the Western canon, those dismissive of it protest that marginalized students are made uncomfortable by the study of the West. But when studying SLE, most students become uncomfortable, and this is a positive consequence. Great books ask fundamental questions about how we ought to live. Dissatisfaction with a text is no more than a failure to defend the values and beliefs one holds dear. Discomfort is common in SLE given how frequently the texts tear apart students’ core beliefs. It is common for people to walk away from East FloMo with their views shattered or radically altered. It is common to struggle to reconcile the facts of life with persuasive normative claims. And it is unreasonable to expect to resolve these dilemmas within the course of a year.
Issues of identity should not excuse students from feeling uncomfortable. Given the uneasiness that participants in the program often experience, the burden must always remain on the individual to justify themselves in light of the arguments presented within texts. The call to advocate for oneself within SLE is not a call for marginalized individuals to justify their experiences to everyone. Rather, we should acknowledge that, in a space suited to productive vulnerability, allowing oneself to become uncomfortable is beneficial.
Allowing oneself to be uncomfortable provides the basis for evolution and subversion. Marginalized students can utilize their uneasiness to resolve tensions between their lived experiences and the texts they encounter. For example, you can accept Locke without accepting his classist exploitation. And, if justified, you will have liberated both the text and yourself from extolling the virtues of classism: you can prove the legitimacy of government without justifying the subjugation of the poor at the same time. Scrutinizing texts exposes their implementations as contingent upon the beliefs of oppressive individuals instead of on the texts. Scrutinizing the author frees their reasonable claims from the unreasonable bias that stems out of their dated and one-sided social context. This kind of scholarly resistance does not go unheard; it can inform more privileged peers.
Conversations are contingent upon all parties being open to having their minds changed. The ability to validate one’s response to a text as an academically rigorous critique, however, can transcend barriers of disparate values and identities. Justifying our frustrations to others through logical arguments makes them harder to dismiss. SLE gives marginalized students the logical tools to convey their experiences loudly, clearly, and compellingly.
The marginalized must be willing to assert their standpoints as worthy of serious intellectual discussion. I am a low-income student in SLE, and I can actively subvert Locke by separating out his claim to property, from the abuses implied by unlimited property rights.
It is crucial that marginalized students be willing to interrogate Western thinkers. Avoiding critical thought is shirking responsibility for oneself and one’s own politics. I cannot imagine trying to sidestep this critical inquiry. I certainly cannot imagine it when the course of my life – my ability to justify my lived reality as important – depends on my ability to make myself heard in a timeless discussion on how the world ought to look.
Correction: This post was modified on March 2 to include the author’s name, after he requested to be de-anonymized.