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Campus Chaos Comes to Reed College

angry students with signs take over a classroom

Reed College in Portland, Ore., has a reputation for two things. One is academic excellence: it's had far more than its share of Rhodes and Fulbright scholars, and has been called “the most intellectual college in the country.” The other is leftism and identity politics: its “Discover Reed Fly-in Program,” which pays the expenses of prospective students who want to visit the campus, is open to people of every background — except Caucasians.

The kids who get to go to Reed are part of a very fortunate minority. But like their counterparts two hours north at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. – another college known both for its academics and its leftism – a good many of them are totalitarians in training. This summer, Evergreen made worldwide headlines because of the abusive treatment meted out by a gang of insufferable brats there to biology Prof. Bret Weinstein. Now the brats at Reed are kicking up a fuss of their own.

One of the things that make Reed academically special is Humanities 110, its required freshman lecture course in Western civilization. Taught by a team of experts on different authors and periods, and with a syllabus that includes Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Plato, Virgil, Ovid, the Book of the Dead, and parts of the Bible, it's the kind of course that students at many another high-profile college shut down a couple of decades ago.

In 1987, Jesse Jackson led hundreds of Stanford students in the chant: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.” Two years later, Stanford's Western Culture course was replaced with a more “inclusive” program. But somehow the Western civ course at Reed survived.

That may change soon. In an article published last fall in the college magazine, Reed alumus Chris Lydgate recalled how much he'd loved the course when he took it three decades ago, but noted that students were now tagging it as “an example of institutional racism” that “conveys the surreptitious message that white men are the authentic source of thought and civilization.”

Claiming that the works taught in the course have played a role “in colonialism, racism, and slavery,” these students were demanding that the course be revised to “include a history of the Western canon as racist and anti-black.”

Lydgate discussed these complaints with several Hum 110 professors. One of them rejected the racism charge: “It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.” Another reminded Lydgate that “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. ... I think it is crucial for our students to have an accurate and critical knowledge of this civilizational legacy.”