CNN recently summarized the immense achievements of eight Western thinkers—Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, and Virgil—with this accolade: “Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male.”
It is an indictment that could also have been leveled against Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had the Biblical patriarchs been included on the list.
These are the thinkers whose names grace the pediment of Columbia University’s Butler Library, which was built in 1931, at a time when Western civilization was celebrated in our institutions of higher learning rather than treated with suspicion. The list includes the world’s greatest poet, the world’s first historian, Greece’s greatest playwright (with the possible exception of Aeschylus), the world’s two greatest philosophers, its two greatest orators, and Rome’s greatest poet.
But what CNN and some Columbia University students publicly assailed was their gender.
The CNN story was written to draw attention to a banner hung above this list displaying the names of eight female writers. It was hung by a group of students who were a part of the “Butler Banner Project,” a group that has been hanging a banner of female names on the building during Women’s History Month every year since 1989 in order to draw attention to the importance of “inclusivity in the curriculum.”
The names included in this year’s banner? Toni Morrison, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gloria E. Anzaldúa and A. Revathi.
In an opinion article published in the Columbia Spectator, the university’s student newspaper, a nameless author representing the Banner Project proclaimed,
These libraries are more than just buildings, and the names etched onto their façades are more than just tributes to wealthy donors. They are constant yet subtle reminders of the values of their respective institutions. Every time someone walks past Butler, they see the names of eight white men and internalize that these are the writers and thinkers that Columbia deems deserving of cultural admiration.
It is easy to see where this is going. The only “harmful Western motif” mentioned in the article is that white males had something to do with the Western culture from which we come, which is, of course, true. But these men aren’t great because they are white or because they are men. They are great because their ideas are great, and they are great because they shaped the culture in which we live.
They were judged great by standards that had nothing to do with gender.
But there is obviously something more behind this to which gender is only coincidental. The curriculum suggested by Butler, complained the writer, stresses themes that “only help us to understand the Greco-European tradition”:
Left unchecked, this one-dimensional analysis of tradition can lead to the adoption of harmful Western motifs. When do we unpack sexuality? The loss of a child? Mental health? The intersectionality between being queer and a person of color? What it means to be a cultural minority?
The representatives of Western civilization are under attack not because they are males or because they were European, but because of the principles they represent, principles which are identified with the West because historically that is where they came from. But they are concerned with something more than gender and geography.
The subtext that underlies incidents like that involving Columbia’s library has much more to do with the fundamental values of our civilization than with the fact that so many of its works were written by males. Western civilization is being assailed not because it is Western, but because it exalts the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and this is what you will find if you read the works of many of the writers the Butler Banner Project has included on its banners.
This is why they select the particular female writers they do, some of whom represent ideologies that question the very nature and objectivity of truth, and cast doubt on whether there is anything that can really be called “good.” Most of the women named in the Butler Banner Project’s new banner are all postmodernists who deny that there is any fundamental order to reality, who reject traditional religious beliefs and values like those inherent in Christianity, and who believe that the human will itself determines reality.
It is instructive to consider the females writers who were not included in the banner. Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou certainly have a claim to literary legitimacy, but why did they not include female writers like Flannery O’Connor, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell?
Had they really been interested in representative female writers— modern writers who have won deserving respect—these are the names they would have drawn from.
Why did they not include them? Because in large part these women writers acknowledged the values and ideals of Western Christian civilization and considered themselves a part of it, unlike Ntozake Shange, a “black feminist,” and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, a “feminist” and “queer theorist,” and who no one outside of women’s and gender studies departments have heard of anyway.
The thinkers whose names grace the pediment of the Butler Library are not remarkable because they are males. They are remarkable because they are remarkable. Their names constitute an abbreviated list of thinkers whose thought shaped the way we think. The whole point of their names being where they are is because they stand at the headwaters of civilization. You can think of the greatest modern thinkers and writers, male or female, and they will constitute little more than footnotes to the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. We are who we are because of who they were, and they are who they are regardless of whether we agree with them or not.
This isn’t really about gender. It isn’t even about the geographic West per se. It is about the fundamental values on which our culture is built, and it is just one more battle between the defenders of civilization and its enemies.
And the good news is that the names on the pediment will be remembered long after the rest of us—those who want their names there and those who don’t—are gone.