In the 2019 fall semester, the incoming class of the University of Maine Honors College was asked to read a David Gross article in Minerva to get acquainted with the journey ahead of them. Gross wrote of the dangers of Honors becoming “self-congratulatory, in praise of OUR civilization, Western Civilization, as the real one.” This was an important message for students to read, but it appears it is one the Honors College itself should have taken to heart. Because, while in theory the Honors Endeavor is to educate students on what it means to be a person, in practice it teaches students what it means to be a white person.
The Honors College core curriculum suffers from a severe case of Eurocentrism. The vast majority of the texts assigned to students are written by white, Western authors for white, Western audiences. The most contemporary Asian text of the Civilizations Sequence, “The Qur’an,” is from the 6th century CE (the most contemporary South-East Asian text, “Analects,” is from 479 BCE). Meanwhile, the sequence features Western texts from ancient times all the way through to the latter half of the 20th century. Honors students never read a core text from South American or African authors, and only one Native American text. None of the listed Honors’ faculty, current or retired, are Black. The curriculum is a reflection of those who create it, and as it stands, it is a group of mostly white faculty who chose a group of mostly white texts. This is inherently anti-intellectual and will remain that way unless more diverse voices are heard in the process.
Much like the vast majority of Honors’ preceptors, most of the weekly lecturers who speak on the texts are also white. Thus, not only is the curriculum Honors teaches predominantly Eurocentric, so too is the lens through which it is taught. Lectures on multicultural texts given by white faculty will never do justice to the original text. Multicultural lecturers bring an invaluable understanding of the nuances in context and perspective, especially when these lecturers still face the same systems of oppression discussed in the texts. No amount of study will make a white lecturer be able to truly understand what it means to be a victim of racism, much less convey that to students.
At the precept level, dialogues are fraught with students who do not read texts and, consequently, often only engage with discussion through their own personal experience instead of the ideas of the text. This is behavior preceptors fail to shut down and simply does not work for majority-white precepts when discussing texts on oppression. Allowing these students who do not have experience with the contents of the text to discuss that text through the lens of their own self-actualization is perpetuating racism. The Honors College allows for discussions about brilliant, anti-racist texts to turn into shallow conversations by students who performatively post social justice infographics “to be a better person” but cannot be bothered to meaningfully engage with Black literature. There is a problem at the student level, but the purpose of the Honors College is to educate those with this mindset, not encourage them. Until preceptors are trained to correct this, the Honors College will continue to let down the few Black authors the sequence features.
Perhaps nowhere are the flaws in the Honors College’s philosophy more evident than in their featuring “Rising Out of Hatred,” a book about the journey of a former white nationalist who changes his views after attending a liberal arts college and meeting people with different backgrounds. The text was assigned for the 2020 fall semester in the wake of BLM protests that year. Rather than boosting the voices of people of color during this important time, the Honors College opted to platform a former white supremacist. By choosing a white narrative targeted at a white audience, the Honors College failed to create opportunities for their majority white student base to confront their privilege. Reading texts on racism must be uncomfortable for white readers to create impactful dialogue and growth. By selecting a text that specifically assuaged white Americans’ fears about the tensions of racism in this country, the Honors College failed their BIPOC students.
Beyond the self-congratulatory tone toward a liberal arts education, “Rising Out of Hatred” also promotes the dangerous stereotype that it is the job of women and people of color to rehabilitate problematic white men. Though, it is not necessarily surprising the Honors College saw merit in that trope, as students of color in their precepts have been forced into the uncomfortable position of acting as representatives for all people of color. One brown student shared that the curriculum and faculty are a major reason they have stopped engaging with almost any of the texts. The Honors College is actively excluding talented, non-white students when it opts for this limited picture of civilization.
The current Honors College approach to discussions of racism, both in curriculum and precept, is often tokenistic. This not only degrades the importance of the BIPOC texts shared, but it also degrades the experience of BIPOC students. Students of color should only share their experiences and opinions if they wish and shouldn’t have their opinion solicited solely to educate their white peers. In other words, as another student noted, “ethical platforming of marginalized voices requires consent.”
Ignoring the consent and needs of BIPOC students is just another area needing major reform. Preceptors must be trained to properly conduct these conversations that don’t exclude BIPOC students from academic spaces.
“Rising Out of Hatred” is a microcosm of a greater issue with the Honors College. This book wasn’t featured simply because it is a supposedly interesting story. The problem is that the lesson humanizes dangerous racists and lets white people and universities off the hook for accountability and action. Worst yet, it treats the struggle of people of color as an opportunity for character development for white people. When the Civilizations Sequence is presented through the white lens, featured BIPOC texts will always be presented in terms of how their struggles affect the Western narrative.
The Honors College needs a wholesale overhaul of its curriculum and structure. Seeking out diversity within the faculty and using tele-education resources to bring in more BIPOC lecturers – especially for more than just BIPOC texts – would be a good start. However, simply featuring a few more books by BIPOC or non-Western authors will not be enough. Until the entire Civilizations Sequence stops feeling like a Western Civilizations Sequence with episodic features of non-Western voices, the curriculum will always be inequitable. This overhaul is not a new idea. Preceptors have noted the tension that arises within the Honors College when it comes to deciding the curriculum, fueling speculation that curriculum choice is one of the main causes for the faculty turnover in the department.
The Honors College is correct about the importance of a liberal arts education. One of the biggest roles higher education plays in the world is cultivating the next generation of leaders and thinkers. Where the Honors College fails is the implementation of this education. Until this systematic change is achieved, Honors students will only become well-rounded in spite of the Honors Endeavor, not because of it.