Guest Opinion: Canons, courses, and change, or what’s the curriculum got to do with it?


It’s been quite a November. Just a couple short weeks ago, comments made on Yik Yak somewhere in our geographical vicinity warned our little community that there was someone nearby, perhaps in our very midst, who took pleasure in provoking the shock and hurt of racist threats. Within a few days, we learned that a trio of someones (the same ones? Maybe not?) had moved beyond threats to real, physical violence against a black student, accompanied by terrifying verbal attacks. The very same night, another student who identified as of non-binary gender was also attacked on campus. While we don’t know yet who did any of these things, we did realize one thing: this isn’t the place we thought it was.

This realization has caused real shock and pain, for faculty and staff no less than students. Many of us have been here a long time, and have invested quite a bit of ourselves in this place. As we grapple with the question of what these recent events mean for us as an institution, it is only natural and fitting that we have begun taking a critical look at our courses, our teaching, and our curriculum. After all, these things go to the heart of what we are about. Faced with evidence that such hateful bias is festering, if not in our institution then at least in our space, it is reasonable for us to wonder: is our curriculum doing what it is meant to do? The thinking goes like this: if we are educating our students well, shouldn’t acts like these, hallmarks of ignorance, intolerance, and firmly closed minds, be impossible for them to commit (if indeed the perpetrators of this crime are our students)?

As I discussed these questions with students in my classes, they dwelled on the gaps in the courses they had taken. Diversity was lacking, they said. When I asked what diversity meant to them in this context, they answered: works by people of color, women, minorities; topics dealing with these communities. They looked troubled, dejected even. Without knowing for certain how to interpret the anxiety on their faces, I imagine it to be the look of people experiencing a crisis of confidence in something they had once believed in; in this case, their education and their college. Was the entire edifice to which they’d given so much time, effort, and money informed by a racism they had somehow overlooked?

On the one hand, I understand their anxiety. They are right to question what might be missing in their education; what they are learning and not learning, and why; how the choices of their faculty might be informed by unexamined biases which lead them to bring some people and topics into the classroom, and exclude others. These are great and important questions. They poke at the powerful organizational principles of thought that we call canons. Canons are useful because they help us think about and agree upon what is important to know in any given discipline. But like any fixed and unchanging belief, canons can be dangerous when unquestioned. They can sustain biases across generations. They can perpetuate the exclusion of those who have been left out of the story, and should never have been.

On the other hand, it saddened me to see my students so dejected, so much in doubt about their education. I know these people. They are in 300- and 400-level French, so they speak a second language at a very high level. Many of them have studied abroad in France or Senegal (some both), immersing themselves in languages and cultures very different from their own. In addition to this hard-won cultural and linguistic competency and their French majors and minors, they have other majors and minors in fields as varied as math, psychology, environmental studies, history, art, chemistry, sociology, anthropology, international affairs, gender studies, and economics. By the time they reach their senior year, most all LC students have dipped their toes in an impressive range of disciplines and interdisciplines, each one of which has exposed them to a distinct set of questions and a specific way of finding answers. In their single-pointed focus on what might be missing from their education, my students were failing to see the tremendous diversity of knowledge and perspectives they had achieved. Any particular class may fall short when we question how it educates diversely. This can be the nature of disciplines. However, it is the very premise of a liberal arts education that the magic happens when the various distinct pieces that each discipline represents begin to touch upon each other. They dialogue with each other in mysterious synergies that are unique to each person.

   I do not mean to say that we should not examine our curriculum for what might be lacking, excluded, or overlooked. We should, and we will. It is something that unites us, this belief that the learning that takes place in our classrooms has direct import for how we think, how we treat each other, and how we live. It’s a beautiful thought. Not to mention the thrill it gives this literature professor to hear students clamoring to read books by more authors, from different backgrounds and neglected perspectives! For while we can’t all visit otherness as much as we would like in the form of travel or even a diverse pool of friends, we can all read, as widely as we like. It is something to be celebrated, this wish for exposure to more diverse books.

What I do want to say is this: question what is missing in your education, yes. This is a process that I hope you will carry beyond Lewis and Clark to the rest of your lives; it should never end, and for that matter should never rely on someone else’s cooperation.  As long as you are here on campus, keep working to bring perspectives that have been excluded into the light. But don’t let the call to change the world that you hear in your hearts make you discount the knowledge and experience you’ve worked so hard to acquire.

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