There is a course called Humanities 101 at Reed College, a small liberal arts institution in Portland. It is described in a Nov. 2 article in The Atlantic this way:
A required year-long course for freshmen, Hum 110 consists of lectures that everyone attends and small break-out classes “where students learn how to discuss, debate, and defend their readings.” It’s the heart of the academic experience at Reed, which ranks second for future Ph.D.s in the humanities and fourth in all subjects. (Reed famously shuns the U.S. News & World Report, as explained in a 2005 Atlantic article by a former Reed president.) As Professor Peter Steinberger details in a 2011 piece for Reed magazine, “What Hum 110 Is All About,” the course is intended to train students whose “primary goal” is “to engage in original, open-ended, critical inquiry.”
All well and good, right? This is what college is supposed to be about. Challenging assumptions and forcing students to learn critical reasoning skills so that they can not only defend that which they think they know, but learn also what they do not know, and how to debate these issues in a civil society — and to further and defend their future academic research, if any.
Except that is not how it is working out at Reed, as writer Chris Bodenner notes in that Atlantic article:
[In Humanties 101], a 39-year-old Saturday Night Live skit recently caused an uproar over cultural appropriation. In the classic Steve Martin skit, he performs a goofy song, “King Tut,” meant to satirize a Tutankhamun exhibit touring the U.S. and to criticize the commercialization of Egyptian culture. You could say that his critique is weak; that his humor is lame; that his dance moves are unintentionally offensive or downright racist. All of that, and more, was debated in a humanities course at Reed.
But many students found the video so egregious that they opposed its very presence in class. “That’s like somebody … making a song just littered with the n-word everywhere,” a member of Reedies Against Racism (RAR) told the student newspaper when asked about Martin’s performance. She told me more: The Egyptian garb of the backup dancers and singers–many of whom are African American–“is racist as well. The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface.”
Such outrage has been increasingly common in the course, Humanities 110, over the past 13 months. On September 26, 2016, the newly formed RAR organized a boycott of all classes in response to a Facebook post from the actor Isaiah Washington, who urged “every single African American in the United States that was really fed up with being angry, sad and disgusted” over police shootings to stay home on Monday. Of the 25 demands issued by RAR that day, the largest section was devoted to reforming Humanities 110.
The article goes on to say:
Beginning on boycott day, RAR protested every single Hum lecture that school year. In-class protests are very rare on college campuses. During the nationwide upsurge of student activism tracing back to 2015, protesters have occupied administrative buildings, stormed into libraries, shut down visiting speakers in auditoriums, and walked out of classrooms–but they hardly ever disrupt the classroom itself. RAR has done so more than 60 times.
A Hum protest is visually striking: Up to several dozen RAR supporters position themselves alongside the professor and quietly hold signs reading “We demand space for students of color,” “We cannot be erased,” “Fuck Hum 110,” “Stop silencing black and brown voices; the rest of society is already standing on their necks,” and so on. The signs are often accompanied by photos of black Americans killed by police.
“Facebook conversations at Reed bring out the extreme aspects of political discourse on campus.”
One of the first Hum professors to request that RAR not occupy the classroom was Lucía Martínez Valdivia, who said her preexisting PTSD would make it difficult to face protesters. In an open letter, RAR offered sympathy to Martínez Valdivia but then accused her of being anti-black, discriminating against those with disabilities, and engaging in gaslighting–without specifying those charges. When someone asked for specifics, a RAR leader replied, “Asking for people to display their trauma so that you feel sufficiently satisfied is a form of violence.”
But another RAR member did offer a specific via Facebook: “The appropriation of AAVE [African American Vernacular English] on her shirt during lecture: ‘Poetry is lit’ is a form of anti-blackness.”
Liberals like to observe, with good reason, that education has failed American students, from public schools on through college. Any one of us knows people with a college degree who nearly lack the critical reasoning skills necessary to find their way to a cogent position in political arguments.
But it’s not just students at right-wing, religious universities who are asking to be shielded from the real world. Liberal students are asking the same at many institutions.
Civic-mindedness and the public spirit in which we all share some common values are both dying slow deaths in American culture, not to mention the strangling of nuance.
No wonder our body politic cannot agree enough to pursue even the most anodyne of common goals now being threatened by a takeover of the poltitical system by American oligarchs.
Put another way: if Steve Martin singing King Tut is enough to send today’s students in search of safe spaces, and create efforts to shut down an entire required freshman class, then even comedy and comedic satire are both on the same intolerant, know-nothing chopping block.