Dead white men

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Dead white males)
Jump to: navigation, search
"Dead White Males" redirects here. For the play by David Williamson, see Dead White Males (play).

Dead white men, dead white males, or dead white European males (DWEM) are deceased European males that are said to be traditionally the main focus of academic studies of history and Western culture. The term is used pejoratively in postmodern studies to denounce the body of scholarship as too biased to be useful today. The complaints may also be based on negative views of the Great Man theory of history and the Great Books focus of educational essentialism and educational perennialism. English professor Jay Stevenson argues:

[in] the postmodern period....Traditional literature has been found to have been written by "dead white males" to serve the ideological aims of a conservative and repressive Anglo hegemony....In an array of reactions against the race, gender, and class biases found to be woven into the tradition of Anglo lit, multicultural writers and political literary theorists have sought to expose, resist, and redress injustices and prejudices. These prejudices are often covert – disguised in literature and other discourses as positive ideals and objective truths – but they slant our sense of reality in favor of power and privilege.[1]


The phrase "dead white males" (or "dead white men," "dead white guys" etc.) criticizes the emphasis on high culture in Western civilization in academia (especially those in the United States).[citation needed] Critics of the traditional curriculum argued that it enshrined a world view that valued older European history and ideology, for example, over non-European achievements. Users of the term also argued that the traditional curriculum was praising one's own culture; proponents of this type of curriculum, however, argued that "one's own culture" is the logical aspect to place emphasis on in any one nation-state. A similar approach to historical studies is the "Great man theory" of history.

Criticism of term[edit]

Critics of the term have alleged that it aims to "reject" people or ideas on the grounds of race or sex, a form of argumentum ad hominem,[2][not in citation given] and that the term may encourage academics to exclude the valuable ideas of those who are white, male, and dead from college curricula.[3]

Classicist Bernard Knox made direct reference to this term when he delivered his 1992 Jefferson Lecture (the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities).[4] Knox used the intentionally "provocative" title "The Oldest Dead White European Males",[5] as the title of his lecture and his subsequent book of the same name, in both of which Knox defended the continuing relevance of classical culture to modern society.[6][7]

Conservative intellectuals have championed a "high conservative modernism" that insists that universal truths exist, and have opposed approaches that deny the existence of universal truths.[8] Many argued that "natural law" was the repository of timeless truths.[9] Allan Bloom, in his highly influential Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (1987) argues that moral degradation results from ignorance of the great classics that shaped Western culture. His book was widely cited by conservative intellectuals for its argument that that the classics contained universal truths and timeless values which were being ignored by cultural relativists.[10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jay Stevenson (2007). The Complete Idiot's Guide to English Literature. Alpha Books. pp. 9–10. 
  2. ^ Shweder, Richard A. (August 11, 1991). "The Crime of White Maleness". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Philosopher John Searle argued that "intelligently taught social and political histories" should address "those [demographics] that have been treated unjustly. It is important, however, to get rid of the ridiculous notion that there is something embarrassing or lamentable about the fact that most of the prominent political and intellectual leaders of our culture over the past two thousand years or so have been white males. This is just a historical fact whose causes should be explored and understood. To deny it or attempt to suppress the works of such thinkers is not simply racism, it is unintelligent." (
  4. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved May 25, 2009).
  5. ^ Nadine Drozan, "Chronicle", The New York Times, May 6, 1992.
  6. ^ Bernard Knox, The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics (1993) (reprint, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), ISBN 978-0-393-31233-1.
  7. ^ Christopher Lehman-Haupt, "Books of The Times; Putting In a Word for Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Etc.", The New York Times, April 29, 1993.
  8. ^ Gerald J. Russello, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (2007) p. 14
  9. ^ Hyrum S. Lewis (2007). Sacralizing the Right: William F. Buckley Jr., Whittaker Chambers, Will Herberg and the Transformation of Intellectual Conservatism, 1945–1964. ProQuest. p. 122. 
  10. ^ M. Keith Booker (2005). Encyclopedia of Literature and Politics: A-G. Greenwood. pp. 180–1. 
  11. ^ Jeffrey Williams, ed. PC wars: Politics and theory in the academy (Routledge, 2013)

External links[edit]