Beware of Dead White Dudes

by | Mar 13, 2017 | Education, Faith & Politics

I hadn’t been listening to her translation. Like all good undergraduate Latin students, I was busy looking over the following paragraph in mortal dread of being called on next to translate in front of the class. But I finished just in time to hear her complete the sentence from Ovid.

        “…nam hominium sententia fallax; for the opinions of human beings are deceptive.”

The professor, without a moment’s hesitation, replied: “Use ‘men’; ‘For the opinions of men are deceptive’. Shakespeare wouldn’t use the word ‘humans’.”

At the time, this struck many in the class as odd, if not insensitive. Hominium, from Homo, means human being; it is not gender exclusive.

When questioned on this point the professor simply replied: “Well…you know what I mean.”

Although that was nearly ten years ago, the battle for inclusivity in higher education no longer focuses solely upon language, but increasingly upon the content of the curricula itself. Students across the nation, as well as overseas, are increasingly calling for the decolonization of what has been traditionally referred to as the Western Canon; or as one student at Seattle University recently stated: “The only thing they’re teaching us is dead white dudes.”

The Western literary tradition, the hallmark of a liberal arts education, typically follows the literary and philosophical endeavors of ancient Greece and Rome and the subsequent 1,500 years of European development. As such, the vast majority of the authors in the Western Canon are, from our perspective, both white and male; a pedagogical dominance largely unquestioned in the West until the mid-twentieth century following the emergence of civil rights activism, large scale European decolonization, and successive feminist movements.

Now many student organizations, such as Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO), are actively campaigning for large scale curricular changes. RMFO includes the following as one of their stated aims:

Reforming the Euro-centric curriculum to remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge – by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies. This will create a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.

Even as someone particularly attached to the Western literary tradition, it is hard for me to ignore the glaring discrepancies of diversity in our intellectual heritage, built it would seem, upon the dual phenomena of both white privilege and male privilege. But the case against dead white dudes begs several questions which immediately complicate the otherwise stark narrative created by these student movements.

To begin with, we must ask ourselves in what sense many of these authors were “white”. White privilege, the inherent and unwritten advantages experienced by white people in contrast to people of color, depends largely upon socio-economic and political segregation which goes back no more than 500 years.

Would Plato or Aristophanes have considered themselves white? In what way does the work of Chaucer or Dante reflect white privilege in a world which claims little or no variation in skin color? For much of Roman Imperial history, it was the Northern European skin tones which represented the “barbarians,” and during the height of 5th century B.C.E. Athens, there remained a feeling of inferiority among the Greeks towards the yet dominant, and darker skinned, Persian empire. While the emphasis here is undoubtedly Western or European, it is less clear to me that it is specifically “white” in the modern sense of the term.

The paucity of women authors in the Western Canon is, sadly, the result of minimal educational resources at the disposal of most women throughout most of human history. It is notable that this is not merely a Western problem. But here again the problem does not seem to be that our educational establishment has privileged male authors over women by deliberately excluding scores of women intellectuals; but rather that for indefensible historical reasons there are simply more male authors than there are women authors.

It is clear, at least to me, that the Western literary tradition is indicative of a problem, but perhaps it’s more of an historical problem than anything else. The dominance of dead white dudes in our curricula reminds us that for most of Western history a large portion of the human experience went unrecorded. But this says nothing about the value of the Western Canon itself.

British historian Lawrence James, a living white dude, found it striking that all the principal leaders in the Indian Independence Movement had been the products of a liberal arts education in England.1 In fact, it’s hard to understand people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. without a knowledge of Tolstoy, Thoreau, or the Bible. It’s hard to understand many modern theories of social justice, universal human rights, and international law without Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, or even Dickens.

It is true that Shakespeare was a white dude, but would we not lose something of the human experience which transcends his white dude-ness if he were removed from our curricula? It is interesting to note that nobody is calling for the removal of Darwin, Einstein, or Tesla from science curricula on similar grounds. Might there be something of value here which is accidental to these authors’ gender and race?

And while I remain skeptical towards some of the more superficial arguments for any wholesale destruction of the traditional liberal arts curricula, the dominance of a narrow Western male experience is a difficult fact to whitewash (forgive the pun). But this difficulty might be one point in its favor. War monuments serve a twofold purpose; to honor the dead and to remind us of what doesn’t bear repeating. For better and for worse, the Western intellectual tradition is the deposit of our collective intellectual memory, which would seem dangerous to neglect.

So in the words of some dead white dude: “That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.”2

And mothers… Anyway, you know what I mean.


Image courtesy FlickrCC user Marco Poggiaroni.

  1. James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, (St. Martin’s Griffen, 1997).
  2. Goethe

Pierce Gibson, SJ   /   All posts by Pierce