Encampment’s Faculty Cheerleader Oversees Columbia’s Core Curriculum in Humanities

Joseph Howley points the finger at “hegemonic Zionist far right” for vilifying encampment
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One of the most outspoken supporters of the encampment at Columbia University, classics professor Joseph Howley, is leading a review of the required humanities curriculum for all Columbia undergraduates.

Since the encampment went up over a week ago, Howley has emerged as one of its most prominent champions, giving interviews from inside its perimeter and dismissing the idea that the unsanctioned protest—which has included calls to murder Jewish students and threats that “Columbia will burn”—poses a safety risk.

He will bring that considered judgement to Columbia’s famous “Literature Humanities” course, which Howley has chaired since 2022. Howley was scheduled to review the syllabus for that course, a survey of what the school deems important humanities texts, this term as part of Columbia’s regular efforts to update its core curriculum, according to a 2022 profile in the university’s alumni magazine.

The review will give Howley tremendous power to shape the cultural and intellectual horizons of first-year students. And according to the profile, he’s excited to exercise it.

“I feel like preparing for that next syllabus review started on Day One for me,” Howley told the magazine. “These reviews are a regular opportunity to make sure this class is current, that it’s living up to its goals and to our ideals and values.”

Howley and Columbia did not respond to requests for comment.

As the encampment drags on and images of student radicalism flood the airwaves, there has been mounting speculation about where, exactly, the radicals got their ideas. Part of the answer seems to be Columbia’s core curriculum, comprised of Literature Humanities and four other mandatory courses, which has been shedding the classics for years in an effort to accommodate newer, less eurocentric texts.

Once rooted squarely in the Western canon, Literature Humanities now assigns a 2014 book about “racial aggressions” by Claudia Rankine and a 2001 work of “post-colonial” poetry by Aimé Césaire. Contemporary Civilization, another core class, includes units on “anticolonialism,” “race, gender, and sexuality,” and even climate change, requiring students to read an essay on “indigenous peoples and climate injustice.”

The new additions have squeezed out Sophocles, Herodotus, and Milton and led to accusations that Columbia—long considered a bastion of the Great Books—has traded its liberal arts heritage for a new progressive orthodoxy. Though the core still includes staples like Plato and Virgil, its treatment of the recent past has been more one-sided, laser-focused on the sins of the West.

“To understand the world before 1900, Columbia students read a range of texts and authors that are important to understanding America and the West in their entirety,” the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in a column this week. “To engage with the contemporary world, the world they are being prepared to influence and lead, they read texts that are important to understanding only the perspective of the contemporary left.”

Howley’s role as humanities czar suggests this imbalance will outlive the protest he’s championed. It also underscores the role that faculty have played in prolonging the encampment, in part by physically blocking attempts to clear it.

Dozens of professors formed a human chain around the protesters on Monday after Columbia president Minouche Shafik ordered them to disperse by 2:00 p.m. And over a hundred faculty members, including Howley, excoriated Shafik’s decision to call the police on April 18 in an attempt to gain control of the situation.

In an interview with Al Jazeera this week, Howley also claimed that there was “no evidence” of anti-Semitism on Columbia’s campus and that claims to the contrary had been weaponized by the “hegemonic Zionist far right”—days after a student leader of the encampment, Khymani James, was caught on camera saying “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

Other faculty supporting the encampment are likewise involved in the Columbia core. Manan Ahmed, a history professor who negotiated on behalf of the protesters when Columbia first tried to clear them out, teaches his section of “Contemporary Civilization” through a “decolonial lens,” according to an article in the Columbia Spectator by a Barnard College student, Ashe Lewis, who cited Ahmed’s section as “evidence that decolonial progress is being made at Columbia.”

The idea is to “discuss foundational texts in a way that does not glorify white superiority,” Lewis wrote.

Lewis, who uses he/they pronouns as a student at the women’s college, added that Ahmed’s section was just the first step in decolonizing the curriculum.

“Columbia has a long way to go,” Lewis wrote.

Encampment’s Faculty Cheerleader Oversees Columbia’s Core Curriculum in Humanities

Joseph Howley points the finger at “hegemonic Zionist far right” for vilifying encampment
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