While Bwog is generally not about the op-ed lifestyle, sometimes we’re tipped articles that we think are important to talk about. The following was sent to us by CC first years Miles Hilton, Lara Tang, and a third writer who wished to remain anonymous. This piece does not reflect the opinions of Bwog or its staff.
Love it or hate it, the Core is Columbia College’s backbone. It was the first part of Columbia thrust upon prospies and first years alike and many incoming students were thrilled to be handed copies of The Iliad over the summer. When I picked up my Alumni Association-stickered edition, I had the sense that some kind of essential knowledge was being passed to me from the older generation. Yet as I read through the syllabus I began to wonder what I was supposed to be learning, especially about rape and the treatment of marginalized peoples.
So I started reading these books in the context of Columbia’s discussion of rape culture, the campus climate, and administrative reforms. Specifically, I looked at the relationship between the Lit Hum curriculum and the work being done by student activists like No Red Tape, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and the 23 students who filed Title IX complaints against Columbia University.
I went through the syllabus page by page (becoming probably the only student to do so) and annotated every instance of rape, assault, or other non-consensual activity. In the first semester, a quarter of the characters were women and about 20% of those women were raped, which is on par with conservative estimates of rape on college campuses. The second semester had a much higher figure than the first, around 50%, mostly due to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which has roughly 80 instances of assault). Even this number is an underestimate, though, as I treated many of the instances of mass rape on the syllabus as a single data point for simplicity. It’s worth noting that these mass rapes were almost always directed at a conquered group—think about the “victory tour” after the Trojan War portrayed in The Odyssey. Far from being confined to works written by the guys carved into Butler, however, these tactics are still used in imperialist warfare today.
Most Lit Hum classrooms do lip service to misogyny in the syllabus, often around the time Metamorphoses comes up, but the discussion rarely progresses to Columbia itself. The Core is at the center of the University’s collective imagination which, according to Columbia, “encourages students to become critical readers of the literary past we have inherited.”
“Literary past” is a funny term. It’s presented as a cohesive, organic whole, independent of human influence or fabrication, and as the be-all and end-all of intellectualism and literary value—the names of the writers have been literally imprinted into the architecture of the school itself—yet the Western canon is actually very limited. Lit Hum (and the Core in general) includes almost no writers of color or women. The Great Books are really just Western European, for the most part. The literary past we as Columbia students are inheriting is, as has been said again and again, primarily white and male.
When the Core was first introduced to Columbia, this was less of an issue—most of the students were white, male, and generally wealthy. This is no longer the case. Some of us are activists. Some are survivors. Many are triggered by the mere mention of certain types of violence, which is especially difficult to avoid in a mandatory course. Hopefully, we are the kind of students who care, not just about grades and summer internships, but practicing basic human respect and kindness. “Diversity” on this campus has to be about more than sticking token identities on the cover of an admissions pamphlet. If our diversity is so celebrated, then, it’s time for the university to stop assuming that we will all share neutral responses to often violent and triggering material.
Going further, what “inheritance” are Columbians being asked to accept? Inheritance, by definition, is a gift that can’t be refused—Lit Hum is a large part of Columbia’s culture, we all get to pretend to have read the same books together. Yet our intellectual inheritance is oddly specific and often shoved down our throats by the administration as absolute and inalienable—we’re asked to be “critical readers,” sure, but rarely to critically examine the content of the texts themselves.
Our literary heritage has largely been imposed on us. We’re expected to internalize the limited subjectivities and Lit Hum and pass them down to future generations. At the same time, we’re expected to renounce our “chosen” literary family, the authors who may share identities with us, speak to our struggles, or express our ideologies. By presenting the Western canon as the only canon worth considering, the Core implicitly tells students that any identities of theirs that aren’t in line with the dominant system are inherently less valuable. Refusing this self-normalization is often seen as abandoning the “quest for knowledge,” whatever that means—or that we’re being “too PC,” whatever that means.
Beyond a critical discussion of rape in Lit Hum, Columbia must question the place of any single canon at the university. Any syllabus that’s presented as all-encompassing will force at least some students to self-normalize. Violence—rape, the absence of women and people of color—should not define this campus. Even Literature Humanities’ name fails to live up to its promise: there is more to humanity than white people or men.
I get it—it’s finals, it’s hard to care about even writing papers, much less critically re-evaluating the reading list of the Core. But think about the parallels between the imposition of normalized rape on our entire student body and the culture we’ve been working to build. A university that uncritically accepts rape in its foundational literature class, without any thoughtful discussion directly addressing rape and sexual assault, must question its ability to firmly reject rape and sexual assault on campus. The same can be said of Lit Hum’s other violences: a campus with this syllabus at its core will never be proactive in addressing the needs of students of color, queer and trans students, disabled students, low income students, or any other marginalized groups. Lit Hum is supposed to be the intellectual starting point on this campus, yet it can also be a violent tool of homogenization when left unexamined. If we don’t think it through, we become complicit in that violence. To amend the intro of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment,” dare to think.