Who goes on a syllabus?

In a training several months ago, I was asked to determine whether the following scenario was a microaggression: a non-white student asks his white history professor why all the authors on the syllabus are white.

Unfortunately, before our fictional faculty member can respond, some other (white) student takes the opportunity to open his mouth and say something stupid – a comment which, yes, I did interpret to be a microaggression. Or possibly just an aggression.

But that little incident aside, what I really wanted to know was how the faculty member would respond. Of course, he (yes, it was all men in this scenario) could have said something equally ridiculous, making it easy for me to check my little microaggression box and move on with my day.

But since this is my scenario now, let’s imagine the professor said something more interesting and perhaps even reasonable:

“History,” as it’s collectively understood, is the story of white men. “His( s)tory” as one of my elementary school teachers annually exclaimed when explaining the need for women’s history month.

Of course, women and minorities have played critical roles in shaping the standardized version of history, and they do, of course, have rich histories in their own right. It is unfortunate that society has regulated these stories to second-tier status or worse, but the reality is that a scholar of history must study “history” as it’s collectively understood – biased though it may be toward the narratives of white, straight, property-owning men.

Of course, a true scholar of history should also study the stories of those who’ve been pushed to the margins of our awareness, but as a general baseline – any historian should be able to articulate the (white, male) history that exists as part of our shared culture.

So, taking that as the professor’s response, let’s also do away with the question of microaggressions and ask more generally – is there a problem with that syllabus? If it were your history course, would your syllabus look different?

There’s something unsatisfactory – and insufficient – in playing this as a numbers game. As if designating one whole month for “black history,” “women’s history,” or “Asian Pacific American Heritage,” is sufficient to balance the scales.

In a world of so many diverse voices, where so many people have been silenced, there’s no formula for creating a perfectly inclusive syllabus.

Not to mention that simply having a token voice as a nod to diversity doesn’t seem a particularly successful strategy, either.

And yet, there’s something challenging in diversifying a syllabus through content choices as well.

Consider this recent piece from the Atlantic, which seeks to dispute good ol’ Charles Murray’s claim that “no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions,” because, he says, women are not good at abstract thought.

Okay, so, that sounds like something worth arguing over. Yet, in a somewhat disappointing show, the article seems to use “female” and “feminist” interchangeably – essentially, from my read, arguing that women add value by thinking explicitly about the role of women.

Of course, thinking about the role of women is important, but I dare say that women have more to say about the world then their own place within it.Questions of what – or who – go on a syllabus are important ones, but these questions are also a symptom of our greater social challenges.I’m not sure what to tell our wayward history professor. Ideally, we’d learn about history from the people themselves. From the first person accounts of the Chinese and Irish immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad, from the African American slaves who picked our cotton and worked our fields. From the individual stories of all types of people from all types of backgrounds.But such an integrated history doesn’t exist. We’re not even used to thinking in such an integrated way. If we were, we wouldn’t need to inject the “black perspective” or the “female perspective.” Those perspectives would just be there naturally. Part of the diverse fabric that makes up our true, rich history.

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