Merion West

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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