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As a Columbia Grad, I Oppose This Latest On-Campus Activism

(Aliya Schneider/Columbia Spector)

“It seems, unfortunately, today that there are far too few who are willing to defend Columbia University’s heritage, which so many now take for granted.

On September 26th, the Butler Banner Project, a student group looking to diversify the names of the authors and philosophers displayed on the facade of Columbia University’s Butler Library, published an op-ed in the school’s newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator. The group argued that the 100th anniversary of the Core Curriculum, Columbia’s required course of study for all incoming students, marked an occasion, “to protest Butler and Columbia’s elevation of white men.” The purpose of this effort, its supporters argue, is to create a Core that is more representative of the changing demographics of the University, in which over fifty percent of undergraduates now identify as students of color.

In my view, however, if alterations to the Core are made—in accordance with the demands of some students—we would forgo the opportunity to fully appreciate the magnificence of the past, the study of which has fostered self-examination, deep inquiry, and engagement with timeless ideas. The administrators of Columbia University are poised to kowtow to the Butler Banner Project—and those students who support its goals. These are the same students who are unwilling to expose themselves to “triggers” and fear “microaggressions,” which are allegedly encountered by some students of color (and people of differing sexual orientations) when studying texts written by classical authors. 

The op-ed’s authors lay out a litany of grievances, ranging from the inability of the themes of the Greco-European tradition to resonate with modern dilemmas like, “the intersectionality between being queer and a person of color,” or “what it means to be a cultural minority.” Closer to the group’s original mission, the authors of the op-ed also suggest that there is something deeply disturbing about students having to see the names of white men carved into stone above Butler Library writing that, “Every time someone walks past Butler, they see the names of eight white men and internalize that these are the writers and thinkers that Columbia deems deserving of cultural admiration.” The Butler Banner Project also bemoans that these thinkers (which include Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero—to name a few) “find their way into every classroom on campus,” as if that’s some sort of tragedy.

Never mind the fact that for decades both students of color and female students were somehow able to fulfill Columbia’s Core Curriculum requirements without claiming that reading the words of white male authors is tantamount to perpetuating racism and sexism. Furthermore, the Butler Banner Project now makes the assumption that all people of color and women share their interpretation of the Core, lumping them all together and, therefore, eliminating their ability to hold differing opinions—all on the basis of their race and gender, mind you. This Marcusian/Gramscian idea to dismantle and deconstruct Western Civilization brick by brick is not new, but the boldness and zeal of these activists, who are all too frequently joined by university administrators and professors, is truly concerning. 

For students looking to remedy the plight of the, “one-dimensional analysis of tradition” expressed in The Iliad, I suggest that instead of dismissing these authors on account of not sharing your background, you ought to use what makes you unique to respond to their ideas. Take the ideologies of the “ancient European white men” that you deem so reprehensible and render them irrelevant by putting forward ideas of your own. Or instead, you might wisely decide to argue that the themes of “hospitality, honor, war and filial piety” are still relevant to students of color today. If you are not willing to do this, then it is you—and not those who embrace the Western canon—who is exhibiting the intellectual laziness. 

Columbia University must always strive to be respectful to the needs of its diverse student body. But this ought never come at the expense of the Core Curriculum, a long-standing point of pride of the University’s. I learned a tremendous amount during my time at Columbia, and this extends to important works by African-American authors such as Clotel by William Wells Brown, Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon, and Stranger in the Village by James Baldwin. These works, which were a dagger in the heart of our country’s illusions about itself, are vital to read, and Columbia rightfully taught them. But I never would have read them had I only been exposed to works written by those of my own ethnicity. This is all to say that all Columbia students need to be exposed to a range of important pieces of literature. 

When Columbia student Laura Hotchkiss Brown teamed up with like-minded classmates in 1989 to hang a banner, which included the names of women authors, above the names of the great writers of antiquity, her intentions were relatively innocuous. Brown’s goal was to add the names of several female writers to counterbalance the inclusion of only men on a building that was then already a half century old. However, now, the activists go much further and wish to entirely re-write history in the name of social justice. 

In keeping with the Western Civilization theme, I would like to reacquaint the campus Left with Socrates’ words, as presented in Plato’s Apology, which serve as a prescient warning: “…you will not easily discover another of my sort, who—even if it is rather ridiculous to say—has simply been set upon the University by the god, as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly.” It seems, unfortunately, today that there are far too few who are willing to defend Columbia University’s heritage, which so many now take for granted. The Butler Banner Project can shroud Columbia University in banners, but it needs to keep its hands off our bloody Core.

Tony D. Senatore graduated from Columbia University in 2017, at the age of 55. He is a well-known bassist and musician.

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Leona
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Leona

In my opinion if you wish for others to consider philosophers of color, simply suggest the philosophers of color. There are several that have informed the black consciousness i.e. Marcus Garvey.

Tom Smith
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Tom Smith

Very well written response to the adolescents in training. It would be a crime to push aside the most important thinkers that form the basis of our rationale. When I first attended college way back in 1975 there were core classes that also included a diverse selection of writers and thinkers. With good reason, the profs, deans, and curriculum advisers knew how important ALL of these different sources of knowledge and inspiration were for the young and developing intellect. The Universities need to insure that their students are nurtured from a wide range of sources. Faculty members that bow under… Read more »

Marco DeFilippis
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Marco DeFilippis

Well-said! We can’t change the past. It simply is what it is. Only a fool and/or a blatant liar tries to undo, cover-up, or change the past. We can only act in the present to help positively influence the future. And only by keeping a less than stellar past we’ll-exposed, out there in the open, for everyone to see, and well-engrained in our collective memories, can we ever demonstrate and celebrate the great progress we have made over time. If we foolishly cover the past up, future generations will never get to see the great progress we have made and… Read more »

Marco DeFilippis
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Marco DeFilippis

(“well-exposed”; not “we’ll exposed”)

La Tanya Hall
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La Tanya Hall

You raise an interesting point in your op-ed. As a person who teaches at two major universities and as a person of color, I sort of sit on the fence in regards to your argument. I agree that some students can get very overzealous and almost tyrannical in their quest for fairness. In a bid to right a wrong, they want to tip the scales completely in the other direction rather than find something that is slightly more balanced and nuanced. They sometimes have an inability to hear any other argument that doesn’t support what they believe, and that is,… Read more »

Allen Fields
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Allen Fields

Excellent analysis of the “White-washing” of history (no pun intended) that is currently running rampant in the American South that has always been my home. Numerous statues honoring both Confederate and Union Veterans have been illegally destroyed by protesters who would rather erase all records of The Civil War instead of learning from our mistakes. The City and County leaders where I live in Winston-Salem, NC, have shown a total lack of backbone by caving to a small vocal minority who have demanded the annual County Fair change its name. The heinous name of the Fair that triggers episodes of… Read more »

Tony D. Senatore
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Tony D. Senatore

I want to be clear as to what i mean when i said that i want the Butler Banner Project to keep their hands off of the Core. I think that the administration of Columbia University should devise a new Core class that covers the works of all of the authors that La Tanya mentions, and much more. Moreover, it should take its place alongside long established classes like Masterpieces of Western Civilization, and it should be mandatory for all students.. Unfortunately, the Banner Project seems to want to play a zero sum game; in with the new, and out… Read more »

Audrey Martells
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Audrey Martells

Rather than elimination, inclusion is the answer for both sides of this issue. Change is difficult but necessary.