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Opinion | What Students Read Before They Protest

When I was a college undergraduate 25 years ago, the fancy school that I attended offered what it styled as a “core curriculum” that was really nothing of the sort. Instead of giving students a set of foundational courses and assignments, a shared base of important ideas and arguments, our core assembled a grab bag of courses from different disciplines and invited us to pick among them.

The idea was that we were experiencing a variety of “approaches to knowledge” and it didn’t matter what specific knowledge we picked up. There was no real difference between taking the late Helen Vendler’s magisterial “Poems, Poets, Poetry” survey class or taking instead a course on “Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape From the Feminine Voice.”

At the time I looked with a certain envy southward, to Columbia University, where the core curriculum still offered what the name promised: a defined set of important works that every undergraduate was expected to encounter. Against the belief that multiculturalism required dismantling the canon, Columbia insisted that it was still obligatory to expose students to some version of the best that has been thought and said.

That approach survives today: The Columbia that has become the primary stage for political drama in America still requires its students to encounter what it calls “cornerstone ideas and theories from across literature, philosophy, history, science and the arts.”

This is an admirable goal, and also a useful one, since it gives a clear look into what kind of “ideas and theories” the current consensus of elite academia deems important to forming citizens and future leaders — including the future leaders currently protesting at Columbia and other campuses around the country. It helps pin down, in a particular syllabus, general impulses that anyone with eyes to see will notice all across the meritocracy, from big Ivies to liberal arts colleges to selective high schools and middle schools.

The Columbia core’s requirements include many of the traditional “Great Books” — Genesis and Job; Aeschylus and Shakespeare; Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville — along with readings in the sciences and exposure to music and fine arts. They also include sources obviously intended to diversify the traditional core and bring it up to date — some from the medieval and early modern past, many from the 20th century.

I want to look in particular at the syllabus for “Contemporary Civilization,” the portion of the core that deals most with political arguments and authors. The pre-20th century readings follow traditional patterns (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) with specific supplements that diversify the list: more Islamic writers in the Middle Ages, Christine De Pizan alongside Machiavelli, a raft of readings on the conquest of the Americas, the Haitian Declaration of Independence and Constitution alongside the American Declaration and Bill of Rights.

But then comes the 20th century, and suddenly the ambit narrows to progressive preoccupations and only those preoccupations: anticolonialism, sex and gender, antiracism, climate. Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault. Barbara Fields and the Combahee River Collective. Meditations on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and how climate change is “colonial déjà vu.”

Many of these readings are absolutely worth engaging. (Some of them I have even assigned in my own limited experiments in teaching.) But they still embody a very specific set of ideological commitments.

To understand the world before 1900, Columbia students read a range of texts and authors that are important to understanding America and the West in their entirety — Greek and Roman, religious and secular, capitalist and Marxist.

To engage with the contemporary world, the world they are being prepared to influence and lead, they read texts that are only really important to understanding the perspective of the contemporary left.

Of course these reading lists can change and the way they are taught will vary with the instructor. But the priorities of Columbia’s canon fit a wider trend. I speak to both college students and high school students fairly often, and it is common to meet kids whose entire sense of contemporary political challenges consists of racism and climate change. (Note that these are usually children of the upper middle class; 18-to-29-year-olds in general are more likely to be worried about economic issues.) They are not necessarily enthusiastically embracing these causes; if they’re talking to me, they’re more likely to be disillusioned. But this is the scope of ideas they’re being given about what an educated person should find concerning or worthy of attention.

This has two effects, one general and one specific to the current protests at Columbia. The first effect is a dramatic intellectual and historical narrowing. In the Columbia curriculum’s 20th-century readings, the age of totalitarianism simply evanesces, leaving decolonization as the only major political drama of the recent past. There is no Orwell, no Solzhenitsyn; Hannah Arendt’s essays on the Vietnam War and student protests in America are assigned, but not “The Origins of Totalitarianism” or “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

Absent, too, are any readings that would shed light on the ideas that the contemporary left is ranged against: There is no neoconservatism, certainly no religious conservatism, but also nothing that would make sense of neoliberalism in all its variations. There is no Francis Fukuyama, no “end of history” debate. Class critiques are mostly invisible, left behind in the 19th century with Karl Marx. And there are no readings that focus on the technological or spiritual aspects of the present, or offer cultural critiques from a nonprogressive vantage point — no Philip Rieff, no Neil Postman, no Christopher Lasch.

This narrowing, in turn, leaves students with an equally narrow list of outlets for the world-changing energy that they’re constantly exhorted to embrace. Conservatism of any sort is naturally off limits. A center-left stewardship seems like selling out. There’s no clear path to engagement with many key dramas of our time — renewed civilizational competition, the stresses of digital existence, existential anomie.

Climate change looms over everything, but climate activism is expected be merged somehow with anticolonial and antiracist action. Yet it’s actually quite difficult to make anti-colonialist preoccupations map onto a world where Western Europe is aging and declining and once-colonized populations now fill its major cities, where the locus of world power has shifted into Asia, where the world’s most tyrannical and imperialist regimes are non-Western and nonwhite. You inevitably have to mystify things a bit, perpetually discovering the hidden key to the 21st century in the power relations of the distant past.

But if you’re willing to simplify and flatten history — 20th-century history especially — it is easier to make these preoccupations fit Israel-Palestine. With its unusual position in the Middle East, its relatively recent founding, its close relationship to the United States, its settlements and occupation, Israel gets to be the singular scapegoat for the sins of defunct European empires and white-supremacist regimes.

Sometimes this scapegoating seems subconscious, but quite often it’s entirely literal — as in the video circulating this week in which one of the organizers of the Columbia protests explicitly analogizes contemporary “Zionists” to the slaveowners of pre-revolutionary Haiti, whom he says were justly murdered by their slaves. (The student has since issued a statement apologizing for rhetorical excess.)

Recognizing that this is happening — that Israel is a kind of enemy of convenience for a left-wing worldview that otherwise lacks real-world correlates for its theories — does not excuse the Israeli government for its failings, or vindicate its searching-for-an-endgame strategy in Gaza, or justify any kind of mistreatment of student protesters.

But it helps explain the two things that seem so disproportionate in these protests and the culture that surrounds them. First, it explains why this conflict attracts such a scale of on-campus attention and action and disruption, while so many other wars and crises (Sudan, Congo, Armenia, Burma, Yemen …) are barely noticed or ignored.

Second, it explains why the attention seems to leap so quickly past critique into caricature, past sympathy for the Palestinians into justifications for Hamas, past condemnation of Israeli policy into anti-Semitism.

The truth is that these aspects of contemporary protest politics are not just a recrudescence of past bigotries. They are partially that, but they are also something stranger, a reflection of a worldview that has come to its anti-Semitic temptations through a circuitous route.

This worldview is broad enough to set curricula but too narrow to find full purchase in the world as it exists, intent on finding enemies but discovering more of them in the past than in the present, and fastening on Israel with a sense of excited vindication — a spirit that yields easily, as righteous vindication often does, to hate.

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