A staple of the Saint Mary's College curriculum, Seminar courses particularly 002, and 103 need to be more inclusive of texts written by Black authors.
By Brent Dondalski
Seminar is a staple at Saint Mary’s: a cornerstone of the Lasallian education the institution strives towards. At its best Seminar, is a free-flowing exchange of ideas, an ongoing conversation that does not end until you graduate. At its worst, however, it is a trudge, a slow walk through the molasses of familiarity in large part due to the repetitive curriculum that at times feels rigid and Eurocentric. If Seminar is to continue encouraging diversity of thought, then it should seek to reflect that by incorporating more Black and non-European texts might resonate with the student body better.
Seminar 001 contains most of my favorite Seminar texts in large part due to its relatively more diverse curriculum. If Seminar 002 and 103 expanded the concepts of race present in Seminar 001 then it would be understood that this class serves as an introduction, however, Seminar 002 and 103 fall short in their inclusions of Black authors, making Seminar 001 feel somewhat unfinished. Along with a couple other essays written by Black writers, two of the most recognizable readings in Seminar 001 are Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Both are brilliant pieces of writing and timelessly essential. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” explores the white moderate’s failure to empathize with Black Americans while Malcolm X’s similarly expands on why racial equity can’t and won’t be compromised on. Both of these texts were extremely relevant in their time and remain relevant to this day. These two texts are so fruitful in the discussions they might bring and fit within the curriculum like a glove, which makes me wonder why similar texts are so sparse in subsequent Seminar courses.
My fear is that including only these two texts in Seminar 001 and failing to flesh out these themes in later classes might present a false dichotomy to students early on. While each text offers so much insight, respectively, they were released less than a year apart, were both written by men, and were likely presented to first-year students at some point already. Often times in America, the history of civil rights and racial equality is watered down, presenting the Christian and peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. contrasted with the militant and uncompromising Malcolm X. Yet, there are so many special and important Black voices in history such as Angela Davis, Cornel West, W.E.B. Du Bois, whose inclusion would help expand upon the concepts of Black liberation while also tearing down this implied dichotomy of MLK Jr. versus Malcolm X. If these authors were to be included, it would help broaden the spectrum of Black thought and race theory for students who might have otherwise understood racial justice to be within a rather binary framework.
Unfortunately, Seminar 002 and 103 in my experience fall even shorter when it comes to diversity of curriculum. I understand that by design there does not exist a curriculum that can satisfy every learning angle: there’s a finite amount of readings possible so some otherwise enlightening texts will have to be left out. However, the lack of variety exhibited in Seminar 002 is quite obvious and disappointing. So many of the texts are from Ancient Greece or at least follow the same philosophical discipline that students are left with the same tired concepts to discuss each class. Ask any Seminar 002 professor or student about fate versus free will and I’m sure they’ll corroborate this. While this does provide the course with a strong topical focus, it comes at the expense of students’ interest. The class could really benefit from writings from Black authors that would not only break up the monotony of these European epics but also build upon pre-established themes of racial justice in conversation with the relevant Western texts. Furthermore, a more diverse list of readings would likely resonate stronger with an increasingly diverse student body and allow students to engage in texts that acknowledge their lived experience.
Lastly, Seminar 103 continues to miss the mark in incorporating Black texts and perspectives into the curriculum. This is especially unfortunate given how rich Seminar 103 is in social commentary. Fascinating texts such as Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times provide insight into their respective eras’ class struggles and consequences of capitalist power dynamics. These two texts as well as others explore exploitation and oppression in such detail that the lack of a Black perspective or incorporation of racial dynamics becomes increasingly glaring. As many Black scholars have pointed out, racism and class exploitation are so intrinsically tied that a discussion of one without the other can only go so far. An inclusion of class-focused Black authors such as the previously mentioned Cornel West would fit right in the trajectory of the class and help illuminate possible connections between historical class struggle as well as race.
Overall, Seminar could do a better job of incorporating Black authors and perspectives into the curriculum of each Seminar class, especially 002 and 103. I understand that these reading lists are often tight, but the persistent European philosophies grow stale at a certain point and could benefit from a substitute that better reflects our current society. There is an abundance of material from Black authors that falls in the intellectual trajectory of each class. I see no reason to continue excluding it. I’ve seen some initiatives taken by the school to improve Seminar’s diversity and I still have not taken Seminar 104. Hopefully by the time I do, the curriculum’s improvement will be measurable, but only time will tell.
Ryan Ford '23,