Homer. Herodotus. Sophocles. Plato. Aristotle.
I studied the names inscribed on Butler’s edifice, as I’ve done countless times before. Somewhat jokingly, I thought to myself, “Well, I guess to get any respect around here you’ve gotta be white, rich, and dead.”
This is something I’ve thought about often, as I’m sure plenty others have as well. I, a mixed-race woman, go to a university named after an “explorer” (read: murderer), whose skills in navigation were surpassed only by his skills in spreading disease and fabricating elaborate myths of racial superiority, and, as part of said university’s Core Curriculum, I study texts written by authors who felt that anyone who wasn’t a landowning white dude was inferior. And these authors’ names also just so happen to grace the building where I spend more than half my time, looking down on me every time I enter, much like many of them would have if they were still alive.
As I examined these names, though, my gaze turned from one of righteous anger to one of resigned exasperation—which also happens to encapsulate my feelings about the Core. Allow me to explain.
I was one of those nerds who chose Columbia for the Core. Yep, we exist. I first learned about it on a prospective student tour and spent hours researching it as soon as I got home. I studied the book lists for Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, seeing titles I’d only ever heard about on Jeopardy. I was hooked. I knew I had to come here.
But shortly into Lit Hum in my first year, I remember feeling frustrated by the narrowness of the authors’ perspectives. Although I understand that Homer and his squad were writing way back when and thus held completely different worldviews from mine, it feels like we read an excessive number of texts by prejudiced white dudes. Like, we get it: Women are inferior, slavery is cool, and man is God’s gift to the world. Heard you the first time, President Trump.
So, when people talk about “decolonizing the Core,” I can empathize. It’s hard not to feel discouraged when the syllabus for a course seems to prioritize the ill-informed opinions of a privileged few over those of the disenfranchised majority. I’ve felt the pain of not getting to read more authors who can speak to my experiences as a woman of color. It’s hard not to wonder why we continue to amplify the voices of bigots by spending hours reading and discussing their works. It’s hard not to wallow in that righteous anger, but perhaps we’re missing the point of the Core.
Maybe the point of the Core isn’t to speak to our unique identities, but to brace us for a world that is slow to change, rife with inequality, and insensitive to the suffering of so many. It’s meant to teach us how a relatively small but still very vocal group of people see the world. The Core isn’t a mirror, it’s a magnifying glass. It’s a tool that prepares us for ideologies that at best merely contradict our own and at worst cause serious harm. It challenges us to examine our own morals and contemplate how they will guide us in combating the disturbing themes we read about in Plato’s “Republic” and experience in real life.
If you’d like a less pessimistic interpretation, maybe it’s that the Core is merely seeking to educate us in the way of old white men so we can gain access to the so-called “Old Boys’ Club” of opportunity, wealth, and prestige. To enter this club, we must participate in a process known as cultural matching.
In her 2012 study “Hiring as Cultural Matching,” sociologist Lauren A. Rivera found that “Evaluators constructed and assessed merit in their own image, believing that culturally similar applicants were better candidates … and explicitly fought for candidates with whom they felt an emotional spark of commonality.” Put simply, if you want to work for an elite firm, research shows that it’s not enough to just be qualified for the position—you need to show you’d fit in there. And it just so happens that the educated elites who run many of the “evil” corporations Bernie Sanders keeps nagging us about are familiar with the “masterpieces” of the Western canon we read in Lit Hum and CC. Thus, the Core gives those of us without St. A’s money access to the vocabulary and culture of the privileged circles we might like to enter someday.
And so, at this point I find myself resigned to the lack of diversity in the Core, not because I can get on board with the morally objectionable views of the people immortalized on Butler, but because I’m hoping that by reading their texts I can one day enter their circles and, like a Trojan horse, destroy them and their ideologies from within.
Laura Salgado is a Columbia College sophomore studying political science-statistics with a concentration in business management because aren't we all just cogs in the corporate machine? Her interests include self-deprecating humor that probably isn't funny and arguing for a ban on mint-chocolate desserts and Comic Sans. Hit her up on Twitter and Instagram for more salty commentary @laurandsavior. A Pinch of Salt runs alternate Thursdays.