In December 2016, Wisconsin State Assemblyman David Murphy lodged a public complaint about the University of Wisconsin’s decision to allow a course entitled “Problem with Whiteness.” According to the Washington Post, the goals of the course are to “understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy” and to explore “how race is experienced by white people.” Murphy claims teaching a class at the state’s flagship public university is a waste of taxpayer’s money. Moreover, he called to withhold funding if the class goes through.
In January, Steve Nass criticized UW Madison for a program in which young men voluntarily gather and discuss masculinity. Nass claims that the course categorizes masculinity as another “societal ill.”
Is white masculinity under attack? Or, should classes interrogate social, cultural, or political hegemony?
To answer these questions, we have to understand the role of the university. In many ways, our conception of the university as a bastion of liberal ideals and counterculture is a mostly modern conception. The civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1950-70s were supported by young college students who organized on campuses across the country.
However, in the Middle Ages, universities educated the men who ran state and religious bureaucracies. Before the university, education occurred in the home or monasteries. But, less than a century after its founding in 1088, the University of Bologna petitioned Barbarossa for secular powers; the Authentica habita or Privilegium scholasticum gave scholars the right to travel and learn civil law. Universities were not for the most wealthy of society, but for second sons and the growing middle class.
The Renaissance and the rise of humanist education saw more students attending universities to help build the solidifying nation states. In England, Henry VIII asked professors from all over Europe to rule on his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In a way, university professors shaped the civic and political history of England and the world.
Universities are not above or outside of politics or corporate interests. They shape and are shaped by politics in that they produce the very people who work and develop policy. Many would argue this is exactly why the university is the ideal place to undermine hegemonic discourses. When we prepare the next generation of law-makers, C-level executives, and teachers, they should be aware of how language and culture shape our ideas of right/wrong, good/bad, smart/dumb.
By interrogating masculinities and whiteness, we can understand the ways that laws, corporate policies, and medicine perpetuate systems that exclude Others. Is it radical to think that a future Senator should be aware of his own privilege when making laws for women or children?