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Spirited Debate Breaks Out Over Hum 110

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on October 20, 2016 04:25 PM

Athena ponders the eternal question... is it time to update the Hum 110 syllabus?

In masterful fashion, Prof. Lena Lenček took the lectern last quarter and delivered a classic lecture on the ancient Greek poet Hesiod before an audience of 300 students in Hum 110. Ranging from the myth of Prometheus to the songs of Bob Dylan, Prof. Lencek zeroed in on the central issues posed by Hesiod’s epic Works and Days. Is toil a virtue? Are the gods just? Is it acceptable to use guile in pursuit of justice?

Sitting in the back of the lecture hall, I couldn’t help but marvel at her dazzling dissection. It reminded me of everything I loved about Hum 110 when I was a student in the ’80s, frantically scribbling notes and smoking Camels.

But times change, and Hum 110 has emerged as a campus flashpoint this semester. As racial tension in the United States has been ratcheted up by police shootings and ongoing racial inequalities, some students have called out Reed’s signature humanities course as an example of institutional racism. Following a campus demonstration last month, student critics have unfurled a lengthy catalogue of problems they perceive and proposals to fix them, such as this one printed on the front page of the Quest:

Hum 110 should include a history of the Western canon as racist and anti-black; Hum 110 lecturers should restructure delivery and analysis of content, in an understanding that the texts are not familiar with everyone and their backgrounds. Or made non-mandatory given options of other Hum courses with books outside of the Western canon.

The protest has ignited a respectful but passionate campus debate over the scope and structure of the course and whether it represents a vision of intellectual life in which all students feel included. At a deeper level, the debate is about race, power, culture, and the nature of education itself.

A Foundational Course

Reed’s emphasis on the humanities stretches back to its foundation. Scornful of what he called the "sheep-dip" approach to education, Reed’s first president, William T. Foster, insisted that students “specialize in the humanities” in order to grasp the fundamental interconnectedness of human knowledge. After WWI, in the teeth of a national mania for practical instruction, Reed doubled down on the humanities with yearlong courses in literature and history. In fact, when the trustees installed President Norm Coleman in 1924, students voiced bitter protests in the Quest because they worried he might water down Foster’s sweeping vision.

The course we now know as Hum 110 (originally Hum 11) was born in 1943 when the Reed faculty decided to combine the mandatory freshman literature and history courses, creating a unique intellectual experience rooted in several key elements:

  • Students look at the same texts through the lens of different disciplines. They read the plays of Sophocles, for example, as both literature and philosophy; they look at Moses as both a spiritual figure and as a politician.
  • Large lectures by a rotating cast of professors. Small conferences where students learn how to discuss, debate, and defend their readings. Challenging assignments that help students develop their analytical powers and writing skills.
  • A focus on the ancient Mediterranean world, especially Greece, because of its enormous influence on the subsequent history of Europe and America.

In some ways, the course has changed remarkably little. The interdisciplinary structure remains in force, and many of the books that students read in 1943 are still on the current reading list, such as the Code of Hammurabi, Homer’s Iliad, Herodotus’s Histories, and works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, and Aristotle.
But in other ways, Hum 110 has changed dramatically. The chronological and geographical scope has expanded and contracted like an accordion. At various times, it has featured the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Song of Roland, Dante’s Inferno and the welsh epic Mabinogion.

As our understanding of the ancient world has evolved, the course has evolved with it. Hum 110 now begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh and ancient Egyptian poetry, including the Book of the Dead, to provide a deeper look at the varied cultural forces that shaped the ancient Mediterranean. Students explore gender and ethnicity in the Book of Esther and examine how women are systematically silenced in the Iliad. They read Apuleius’s Golden Ass as a subversive narrative which offers savage insight into the brutal power relations of imperial Rome. Every ten years, the faculty conduct a thoroughgoing review to make sure the course stays fresh and up to date.

Firing the Canon

To student critics, however, Hum 110 still contains glaring structural defects. It completely ignores many of the world’s great civilizations. Its authors are overwhelmingly male and white. And while Reed offers many courses that focus on other parts of the world (see the Foundations of Chinese Civilization), only Hum 110 is mandatory—a requirement, they say, that conveys the surreptitious message that white men are the authentic source of thought and civilization. Finally, the critics charge that the course does not acknowledge the role these books have played in colonialism, racism, and slavery.

The 24 professors who teach Hum 110—and who are responsible for the curriculum—respond to these criticisms in different ways. (Which should come as no surprise; there has been robust faculty debate over the course for the last fifty years.) But after conducting several interviews and following several conversations, I’d like to offer some insights from the course’s defenders.

First, the racial categories of 21st-century America do not map well onto the ancient Mediterranean. “The idea that Hum 110 is a ‘white’ course is very strange to me,” says Prof. Jay Dickson [English]. “It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.”

Indeed, efforts to claim ancient authors and societies as “white” or “black” have often been driven by ideological motives—before the Civil War, for example, apologists for slavery argued that the ancient Egyptians were white. In any case, the notion that the ancient Greeks should be coded as white is widely challenged by scholars.

Second, the course offers an excellent platform for critically examining key constructs that have framed the narrative of race. “Whiteness, western, eastern, canon, identity, nation, race, europe are, among others, terms that are repeatedly historicized, considered critically, and interrogated by lecturers in Hum 110 as it currently stands,” says Prof. Lucia Martinez [English].

More important, the professors who teach Hum 110 today do not treat its texts as holy objects of veneration but rather as messages in bottles, cast into a distant sea many ages ago, laden with tantalizing clues. They analyze, dissect, compare, and contextualize the readings, unpacking the tacit assumptions and interrogating the far-reaching implications. The texts are “great” not because they are aesthetically pleasing but because they have exerted such a tremendous influence on history—for good and for ill. Aristotle’s ideas about cause and effect, for example, provide an intellectual scaffold that scientists still rely on today. But at the same time, his doctrine of the “natural slave” in the Politics was deployed as a convenient justification for the plantation system.

Asked for her response to the protests, Prof. Lenček replied:

I certainly understand the concerns the protesting students have registered with the existing syllabus of Hum 110. To them, the primary readings as currently constituted -- and the secondary materials -- do not represent the heritage of the entire, diverse freshman class; nor, in their view,  do they articulate a systematic critique of the  legacy of ancient Mediterranean civilizations. I acknowledge that their criticism is justified, but I also keep in mind that this same intersection of Mediterranean civilization incubated the ideas and forms that gave rise to  many of the foundational, positive and productive institutions of Western civilization, whose benefits we enjoy in the form of freedom of speech, the rule of law, and liberal democracy, to name just a few. I think it is crucial for our students to have an accurate and critical knowledge of this civilizational legacy, just as  it is crucial for us all to know and respect the multiple civilizational currents that feed our diverse society.  I am confident that Reed's faculty, students, alumni, and administration have the creativity, patience, sound judgement, and good will to arrive at a consensus solution that will result in a stronger, more vibrant and more representative Humanities program.

Where do we go from here?

It’s clear that many students at Reed revel in the depth and complexity of Hum 110. Prof. Lenček’s lecture on Hesiod drew vigorous applause. Every year, students stage a slapstick performance known as Hum Play inspired by the course.

But it’s also clear that many students would like to see changes to the course. On Oct, 14, the student senate sent a letter to the faculty endorsing the call for change:

Many feel that the content and the mandatory nature of [Hum 110] is alienating for underrepresented minorities and marginalized groups. We, the Student Senate of the Autonomous Student Body of Reed College, beseech the Hum 110 faculty, and faculty in general, to carefully consider the critiques of the Hum 110 syllabus. We ask that the faculty respect and appreciate the lived experiences of so many of our students, and understand that these lived experiences enrich our academic environment...

We respect the pedagogy of the faculty, and the work put into the intellectual betterment of the student population. We agree that academic freedom is a central tenet of the Reed community, and feel that this individual agency should extend to the intellectual independence of historically marginalized students.

We take pride in the actions of the protest organizers, and we intend to do everything within our power to ensure that their demands are met. It’s our hope that you will continue to work with students to make Reed’s academic community inclusive.

In fact, professors want to see changes to the course, too. “Hum 110 is like a shark,” says Prof. Dickson. “It has to keep moving, or it dies.”

As it turns out, the Hum 110 faculty has been working with students to consider possible revisions to the curriculum. On October 26, the faculty voted to accelerate the timetable for reviewing the course, and several committees are due to present their recommendations in November.

"I welcome this commitment—voiced by students and shared by members of the faculty—to discuss the incorporation of counternarratives and critiques of the dominant discourses more fully into our Humanities program," writes Prof. David Garrett [history], who currently chairs the Hum 110 faculty.

The debate over Hum 110 has a special resonance for alumni, many of whom had a love-hate relationship with the course. “When I took Hum 110 in the mid-’80s I was absolutely convinced it was too conservative and Western-focused, and needed a radical overhaul,” says Sandeep Kaushik ’89, a political consultant based in Seattle. “But in the 30 years since, it turned out that the grounding I got at Reed in Greek and Roman classical texts and ideas has repeatedly proven invaluable to me in making my way in the world.”

Can Hum 110 evolve so that all students feel more invested in the syllabus? What is the significance of an author’s identity to a particular text? What is the justification for making students read Hesiod but not, say, Toni Morrison? As the faculty discuss and ultimately decide on the future direction of Hum 110, the students have put these questions firmly on the agenda.

(Note: this post was edited on Nov. 2 to include information about the faculty's decision to accelerate the timetable for revising Hum 110.)

Go Further
Hungry for more? We've collected some essays and articles about Hum 110 (many of which have appeared in Reed Magazine)

On the Humanities at Reed College. Insightful historical analysis of the course, including infographics charting evolution of the course. By Mick Song ’15, July 2016.

About Humanities at Reed. A description of the discipline of humanities at Reed.

How the Humanities Saved Reed. An examination of the role the humanities played in shaping Reed’s identity. By John Sheehy ’82, March 2009.

Hum 110—The Foundation of Reed’s Academic Community. A snapshot of a Hum 110 conference taught by Prof. Pancho Savery [English]. By Romel Hernandez, November 2002.

Defending the Citadel. An account of the battles over Hum 110 and the concept of "relevance" between the Young Turks and the Old Guard in the late 1960s. By Laura Ross ’98, December 2008.

What Will Become of the Past? 1969 article discussing the allegiance of college humanities programs. By Prof. Jon Roush [English].

The Ideology of Relevance. Extracts from a 1969 speech about the concept of relevance and humanistic studies. By Prof. Marvin Levich [philosophy].

What Hum 110 is All About. An introduction to a collection of classic Hum lectures. By Prof. Peter Steinberger [poli sci], March 2011.

A Farewell to the Iliad. A summary and explanation of the "new" Hum 110 syllabus. By Prof. Robert Knapp [English], March 2010.