Occupy the syllabus

Irene Chen/Staff

We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity — economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) — are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.

The white male canon is not sufficient for theorizing the lives of marginalized people. None of the thinkers we studied in this course had a robust analysis of gender or racial oppression. They did not even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Mentions of race and gender in the white male canon are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist. We were required to read Hegel on the “Oriental realm” and Marx on the “Asiatic mode of production,” but not a single author from Asia. We were required to read Weber on the patriarchy, but not a single feminist author. The standardized canon is obsolete: Any introduction to social theory that aims to be relevant to today’s problems must, at the very least, address gender and racial oppression.

The exclusions on the syllabus were mirrored in the classroom. Although the professor said he wanted to make the theory relevant to present issues, the class was out of touch with the majority of students’ lives. The lectures often incorporated current events, yet none of the examples engaged critically with gender or race. The professor even failed to mention the Ferguson events, even though he lectured about prisons, normalizing discourse and the carceral archipelago in Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” the day after the grand jury decision on the murder of Michael Brown.

Furthermore, the classroom environment felt so hostile to women, people of color, queer folks and other marginalized subjects that it was difficult for us to focus on the course material. Sometimes, we were so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lecture. For example, when lecturing on Marx’s idea of the “natural division of labor between men and women,” the professor attributed some intellectual merit to this idea because men and women are biologically distinct from each other, because women give birth while men do not. One student asked, “What about trans* people?” to which the professor retorted, “There will always be exceptions.” Then, laughing, the professor teased, “We may all be transgender in the future.” Although one might be tempted to dismiss these remarks as a harmless attempt at humor, mocking trans* people and calling them “exceptions” is unacceptable.

This was not an isolated incident. In another lecture, the professor cited the highly racialized case of the Hurricane Katrina fallout as an example of people in a poor, brutish, Hobbesian “state of nature.” Moreover, he talked about Native American traditions and beliefs as examples of illogical and irrational superstition. All of these incidents are connected to a larger systemic problem with inclusion in classroom spaces at UC Berkeley. In the 2013 campus climate survey, 26 percent of respondents reported that they had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive and/or hostile conduct. The survey also found that marginalized students, such as trans* and black students, had experienced exclusionary conduct at rates much higher than average.

We need to create classroom spaces where everyone can feel welcome. We recommend that instructors attend workshops on inclusivity in the classroom, such as those offered by the Gender Equity Resource Center. Beyond that, we must restructure the way social theory is taught. We must dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus. We must demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* authors on our curricula. We must break, systematically and explicitly, the epistemological assumptions on which this exclusionary education rests.

So, if you have taken classes in the social sciences and humanities, we challenge you: Count the readings authored by white males and those authored by the majority of humanity. Then ask yourself: Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? Whose perspectives and life experiences are excluded? Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?

Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perret are students at UC Berkeley. Perret is also an intern at the Gender Equity Resource Center.

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  • doubting_rich

    The irony is: a philosophical system based on this canon and upon opposition to its ideas developed the concept that all people should be genuinely equal under the law, and indeed that the law should encode enforced equality in the public sphere and even in private spaces (I disagree with the last two of course, but when you include Marx you are always risking putting the collective above humanity, with the resulting loss of rights for individuals).

    Without these people there would be no concept of equality for this fool to espouse.

  • Self-Abusin’ Pete

    “Sometimes, we were so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lecture.”

    It was horrible. We were subjected to the presentation of ideas that made us uncomfortable. At a university!

    • Caucasoid88

      Berkeley, no less. Where mental clout is supposedly recruited.

  • Del_Varner

    And UC Berkeley wonders why as an alum they don’t get any of my money.

  • Rick Caird

    I guess these guys didn’t do well in the course. Why should they care about the canon of western civilization. Why should they care about the theory of government offered by the people who influenced the design of our government. No, rather than that, a course on classic social theory should consist of non classic writers. I really wonder how that would work. Would we call it “non classic social theory: theories that have not stood the test of time”. I don’t think too many people would be eager to sign up for that course.

    • Self-Abusin’ Pete

      It’s a good thing that these people aren’t science or engineering majors, because then we’d have to hear them complain about how their microbiology professor didn’t discuss plant physiology or quantum statistical mechanics.

      • doubting_rich

        No, they would complain that they had to study a lot of physics by white and especially Jewish men. They would only want to stick to the earliest understanding of radiation and nothing else until the discovery of DNA.

  • This is satire, right?

  • Self-Abusin’ Pete

    This reflects a problem with an entitlement mentality of college students, one that they need to get over for their own good.

    People like these authors show up at college thinking they know everything, and then expect to spend the next four years hearing that they’re correct. They don’t want to do the intellectual work of building their ideas from the ground up, or testing those ideas against competing ones. They act as if the process of intellectual inquiry began during their lifetimes. They want 2015’s conclusions without studying the foundations and how those ideas developed.

    Sure, you can do that if you want. You can learn how to say all the fashionable things. But you’re not learning to study, debate, or criticize. You’re just learning to parrot. You should be using college as an opportunity to read and hear the best arguments from people who disagree with you. But you’d rather just get an easy A for saying the Right Things.

  • Corpus Crispy

    When I was an undergraduate, I had a roommate who had transferred to our school after two years at a small state college. One day he complained to me that his English professor had made the students go to the library twice – TWICE! – in one semester, more than he gone to the library in two years at his previous school. It’s satisfying to know – judging from this article – that despite the post-modern, gender inclusive, anti-hegemonic lah-de-dah, willful ignorance is still alive and well at our universities.

  • Big Bird

    The world and academia does not revolve around Gender and white male guilt.

    • Gunnar Thalweg

      Easy for you to say. You’re yellow and eight feet tall.

      • Big Bird

        I’m white and 6’6 which I guess makes me guilty of something?

        • Gunnar Thalweg

          Yes, it does. Stop oppressing others, immediately.

  • Donald Sensing

    And I guess you guys really don’t understand what “classical” means in a university curriculum, do you?

    If it were not for your self-perceived victimhood, you’d really have no identity at all, would you? Is it actually possible for you to assess a topic outside the Marxist dialectic? I’d guess not.

  • Gunnar Thalweg

    Back in grad school in the early 90s, one thing that really turned me off to this leftist critical theory was that some leftists behaved just like this: They were doctrinaire, dogmatic scolds, relentless nags, folks whose behavior was unmitigated by grace, humility, affection, or a sense of humor — or the idea that something could be outside the realm of politics. There weren’t many as inhuman as this, but there were some. These two are so quick to take offense they don’t see what brittle, shrill characters they’ve become.

    • JohnSkookum

      They are the modern heirs to Oliver Cromwell and the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans.

      • Gunnar Thalweg

        It’s easy to be intolerant when you possess truth.

  • Donald Sensing

    “After Plato, all is footnote.”

    Dean Inge

  • halevi

    There should be trigger warnings for this article. If you get upset by naive morons, don’t read it.

    • Laka

      Not complete morons. They used dead white European male punctuation reasonably well.

  • Keeper of Rothesay

    I am white and male, and I hate myself for being both.

    For years, I comforted myself in thinking that, at least, I had no choice in either; but, now, I know this is false. I am guilty of choosing pallor and male-ficence, with all the racism, sexism, pettiness, privilege, and colonialism that these traits necessarily entail.

    Mr. Kazuo and Ms. Perret* have exposed the horrible paleness and maleness of the Syllabi — a kind of monster with tentacles of exclusionary epistemology. Logic and reason are whitemaleness at its palest and ugliest, and are clearly unacceptable impositions on students of diversity. Would it kill the offensive and hostile “educator”** to include at least a few of the great cross-dressing political theorists of antiquity on the reading list? (Hermaphroditus, of course, springs to mind, as does Androgyna.)

    Until I can arrange for gender reassignment and melanin enhancement, I will share in the deep shame of x-chromosome and color deprivation that renders me non-inclusive.

    * I use the terms “Mr.” and “Ms.” with grave reservations since I would not presume to know the gender identity of either of these brilliant authors, or what identity they might later take, or that I should even be using these terms without guidance from the Gender Equity authorities.

    **“Educator” – itself an oppressive term – is from the dead-white-male language, Latin, educere meaning “to lead out (of ignorance).” Clearly, the so-called “professor” failed in this regard.

  • Old Dead Meat

    Apparently you are so busy being offended that you are declining to be educated. Those old masters were the foundations of the modern culture that embraces tolerance and respect for all individuals. Does the color of their skin that in any way affect the validity of the thoughts they express? Demonstrate a little maturity by listening and thinking before speaking rashly and publicly demonstrating nothing but your own prejudices.

    Or else drop out and save yourself money on a wasted education.

  • SaraB55

    This carries stupidity to a whole new level.

  • Laka

    Ok then. But if you already know everything, including the things you don’t know you don’t know, what do you need college for?

  • MarkJ

    Somewhere, Karl Marx is doing a face-palm and muttering, “Was ein Haufen dummkopfs.”

  • Spanky Jones

    This has to be a joke. The Onion has taken over your newspaper?

  • willallen2

    To affix the label of “white men” to Aristotle and Plato is to reveal an idiocy so deep-seated as to make further discussion pointless.

  • bankerdanny

    I cannot help but note that the above whine, oops, editorial, fails to provide a single name of a woman or ‘person of color’ who wrote something that had a worldwide, historical influence on the subject being studied.

    And really, you want to add ‘gender discrimination’ to a class about classical social theory? The current fluidity in gender identification is a wholly modern construct that does not belong in a classical studies class.

    • ExiledOnMainStreet

      You mean to tell me Andrea Dworkin isn’t up there with Hume and Locke?

    • ExiledOnMainStreet

      You mean to tell me Andrea Dworkin isn’t up there with Hume and Locke?

  • OttoDoubleZero

    How dare the fact that white men historically dominated the classical social theory field! Quick, into the time machine so that we can make reality more acceptable to our little minds!!!

  • ridesdressage

    The Native American Indians were overall a vicious strain of people. They practice witchcraft, did human sacrifices, which included children, warred with other tribes on a regular basis, practice slavery (they would purposely injure a enemy in war so that they could enslave them) and above all cannibalism. When the great Christopher Columbus entered into the Americas, over 20% of the population in the Americas, specifically North America were enslaved. Thank God the white Christian males took over and eventually outlawed their demonic ways…

  • Cypressclimber

    How long did it take you to realize you are in college, not a self-affirmation summer camp?

  • Matthew Reynolds

    This is an Onion article, right?

  • Denis George Miller

    the only intelligent part of this story is the comments below. these so-called students are a waste of air and it has been a total waste of my time to read the story. What a bunch of self-centered idiots.

  • Jim Sweet

    So how do you choose your books? By color of the binder?

  • Fair Dinkum

    It’s been five hours. Would someone please tell me how much longer my earlier post will be pending?

  • Sally Smith

    They were offended because someone said men are biologically different from women?????

  • He_Wei_Jin

    Mr. Kazuo and Ms. Perret are obviously very precious hothouse flowers. They should endeavor never to graduate. They are too delicate to survive out in the real world.

  • Forrest_Higgs

    Demanding changes to the syllabi of universities after universities have priced themselves out of the market. Good thinking there. :p

    MOOCs are the future. It’s a good idea, too, because MOOCs don’t have to listen to your demands for control.

  • barelyintrepid

    This is why I don’t donate to my Alma Mater.


  • gvanderleun

    What a pair of steaming useless turds these drooling morons are.

  • nicholasstix

    “We need to create classroom spaces where everyone can feel welcome.”

    That’s a bald-faced lie. You want to create classroom spaces where normal, patriotic white men can feel even more unwelcome than at present.

    Nicholas Stix, Uncensored

  • nicholasstix

    Doug to Neighbor

    “He’s asking how Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault made their contributions ‘at the expense of others’ as you have rather unthinkingly claimed.”

    Neighbor to Doug

    “And you can’t figure it out, lol.”

    “LOL” has become the signature of the imbecile. Here, as I stand, I am initiating a campaign to limit its use to idiocrats.

    Nicholas Stix, Uncensored

    • youzer

      LOL!!! oops…. i mean, HAHA!

  • nicholasstix

    What is Foucault doing in a class on classical social theory? Or Hegel, Marx, or Weber, for that matter?

    Nicholas Stix, Uncensored

  • Fair Dinkum

    Apparently I’m on some kind of blacklist.

  • Caucasoid88


  • WHL

    The system justifies itself; If truth is socially constructed, then the social construct is truth. :D

  • Alexandra1973

    If it weren’t for White males you no doubt wouldn’t have a keyboard to hammer this tripe out on.

    • Caucasoid88

      That’s what these enlightened progressives fail to see: When they go to bed tonight, everything around them—from the band-aid on their knee to the bulb lighting the room, to the pillow under their heads and the radio on the shelf—was toiled over and made by a white male.

      I don’t even care that they don’t see that. It’s the thinking white men are evil for it part that really bugs me.

    • JohnEffKerry

      True that. And I will add that the keyboards, computers, networks, software, electricity used to post their Progressive screed are only possible because of corporations. Without corporations we would still be living in caves, cooking bugs over sheep dung fires and drinking dirty water.

  • D.B. Cooper

    So, this is what’s being accepted into Berkeley these days? No thanks! You go on and skip the time proven ancients in favor of some primitive society that didn’t even have a written language until white males showed them how it’s done.

  • TheAmishDude

    I propose eliminating the social sciences and humanities entirely.

    That would solve the problem quite nicely.

    In fact, it would solve quite a number of problems.

  • brock2118

    The sad thing is that empathetic and nurturing administrators think they have to coddle people like this instead of letting them sink or swim. My guess is they didn’t do well on the multiple choice questions.

  • mark abrams

    Is your PhD in puppertry or some other similarly rigorous field ?

    • JVW

      Puppetry at least can be moderately entertaining when done right. I don’t think the same can be said for Gender Studies.

  • George Strong

    These PC Millenials deserve the poverty they are going to get. Pay my social security, losers.

    • KM Rossman

      Are you comfortable relying upon some barrista to pay your social security?

  • The majority of people throughout the world and down through the ages have been illiterate. How come we don’t read works by those people? Hmm.

    • gwbnyc

      There’s an article by two such above.

  • I can’t decide whether this is an extremist agenda from a religiously fanatical fringe group or whether it’s a false flag to make feminists look like a religiously fanatical fringe group. It reads like it was written by the Westboro Baptists of feminism rather than the generally quieter mainstream.

    • JVW

      It’s Berkeley, so there’s your answer right there.

  • gwbnyc

    Marx was a Jew, too. Maaaaajor faculty lounge violation.

    Occupy the Silly Bus {:o)~ WOO-HOO!!!

  • alanstorm

    You forgot the /sarc tag. Given the current state of affairs in academia, it’s possible – even likely – that some people will take your post sesiously.

  • Rick Derris

    I’m surprised the SJWs are attacking Michel Foucault. He was gay and died of AIDS complications. He was exposed to HIV while living in NorCal and lecturing at Cal. I’m really not surprised by their ignorance, though. Pink-shirt wearing morons like them should try reading books instead of de facto burning them.

  • ShaneB

    “We need to create classroom spaces where everyone can feel welcome.”

    Apparently not. This column must be satire – or a resume enhancement for the Gender Equity Resource career field.

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