The next 70 years

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

This Saturday, the Directed Studies program will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Alumni from DS classes as far back as possible will reunite around a seminar table and relive the principal academic experience of their freshman year. I, too, will have a seat at this table. I also expect to be one of the few Latin American students present this weekend. For me, this is no honor. Rather, it is an opportunity to witness, and, in effect, lead the long-awaited and long-demanded globalization of DS. Directed Studies turns 70, and I, a Colombian citizen hailing from Bogotá, a student of color, toast that it may live 70 more—not for the demographic of students who have always benefited from the program, but rather for other students of color, who are distinctly shaped by the Western Canon.

In December of last year, Down Magazine published an article titled “Abolish DS.”  The piece criticized how DS’s syllabus features mostly white male straight thinkers, arguing the implications of the establishment of such a canon function to reenact intellectual violence. Yet what struck me was not the content of the piece. Rather, it was the article’s thumbnail picture: it depicted three of my friends and classmates, mid discussion. Although the demographics of DS were but a tangential point of the article, all three students pictured were white men. But I wasn’t simply absent from the picture in the abstract sense that there was no Latin American representation in this image of DS. My absence was literal; I used to be in the picture. In the original, uncropped version of the photograph, (found today on the DS website) another student of color and myself flanked our three classmates that did, if you will, “make the cut.” Confused and irate, I was left to appreciate the brutal irony of cropping people of color from an image introducing an article that critiques the homogeneity and exclusion facilitated by DS’s syllabus.

The picture was soon replaced by a one of an empty WHC auditorium. Yet regardless of the change and the actual content of the article, what first circulated among DOWN readers, primarily students of color, was the picture with the title “Abolish DS.” If the goal was to inspire student-wide discomfort with the program, the edited picture was probably an effective way to do it. Moreover, by presenting an image of DS that excludes DOWN’s main audience—thereby reinforcing existing preconceptions of the demographics of a DS seminar—the article succeeds in making Directed Studies even more unpalatable to students of color. At that rate, the picture will become reality, and there won’t be a need to crop anyone out next time.

While in DS, I realized that I only do two things in class: I listen, and I think. I don’t speak, really. Not even when participation is a nontrivial portion of my grade. Yet when faced with an article that effectively denied that I have a place in DS, I listened, I thought, and I realized that this time, silence would be unacceptable.

For this reason, I will tell 70 years’ worth of DS alumni that I, too, did DS. I will do this simply by attending, by engaging—on equal footing and with equal need—to understand the texts that have shaped my country and culture. As an expatriate, I’ve wondered my whole life why Colombia is the way it is, and why I am here instead of there. Issues that are viscerally relevant today in Colombia, Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World did not develop independent of Greco-Roman-German texts; on the contrary, they are the product of readings, actions, rereadings, and counteractions of the ideas those texts contain. The groups that are excluded from the canon are the most affected; to do anything but turn away from these texts while simultaneously trying to understand them is to doom oneself to having an incomplete picture, no cropping required.

DS covers both too much material too quickly, and not enough. Yet an exposure, however brief, to Aristotelian logic, political theory, and teleology helps begin to explain Latin America’s current struggles to understand its indigenous populations. An awareness, however glancing or superficial, of Lockean notions of property, and a later Marxist rejection of those notions, provides the necessary contextual depth to appreciate the 1960s for the Global South. And even a survey of Western Canon literature is of immense value to identify, and then trace, the values that European expansion and imperialism imposed across the world. From Argentina’s idealization of Europe to Haiti’s repudiation of the same, and from Machiavelli’s fear to Fanon’s love and violence, the ideas in DS remain relevant for many more groups than just the heirs of its authors. They are real, they are current, and they are urgent, above all for the student of color.

For me, the study of the Western Canon is not about universals or about “Great Books.” It is about understanding the formation of a culture that has shaped my part of the world. A culture that is so well documented, I had the chance to study it as a conversation between disciplines, writers, and centuries, so that I could then step back and attempt to understand it outside of itself, in its extra-canonical, global influence. This may not be how my classmates, last year or this Saturday, approach Directed Studies. So be it. It is the way I, in my typically reserved silence, do.

Directed Studies is in no risk of dying a septuagenarian; quite the opposite, DS is only now finding its fullest value and only now getting started, because it is only now that it has me and the small but growing subset of students I represent.

And if it is dying, I’ll be the first to jump to perform CPRKant’s, of course.


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