November 7, 2005

Why aren’t we teaching about Africa

Looking through the history department’s course offerings the other day, my heart skipped a beat. There it was, innocuously slipped in between “Medieval Women’s Religious Writing” and “Who Were the Greeks,” HIST 20200: modern Africa.

My excitement was quickly dampened when I read the description. It was the same course that had been offered in years past, covering South Africa from the 1600s and the tropical areas from the late 19th century to the present in 10 weeks. I continued my search, but as usual I found the bare minimum of courses on sub-Saharan Africa, with no offerings from either the political science or economics departments.

While this survey course is undeniably a boon for Chicago students, it is not nearly enough to address the University’s deficiencies in the field. Even in combination with the African civilizations sequence offered through the anthropology department and varied culture and cultural study courses within the African and African-American Studies program, students here can barely receive a base education in the vast and complicated subject of the Dark Continent.

At a school renowned as a training facility for the future policy makers of the United States, Singapore, and a dozen other countries worldwide, this failure is particularly distressing. As the world grows smaller, we can no longer afford to dismiss sub-Saharan Africa as a policy area that can be learned on the fly. In managing the challenges posed by the ever-worsening scourge of AIDS, the horror of brutalizing ethnic and interstate conflicts, the agonizing questions of environmental preservation versus economic development, and the ever-increasing share of the world’s economic power that African nations yield, one would be greatly benefited by an in-depth education on the political, economic, and cultural development of the continent. One cannot hope to address these dilemmas if one does not understand their background.

A quick perusal of the course catalogs of nine peer institutions reveals that Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, New York University, and Brandeis all believe that Africa is worthy of substantial attention in the classroom. There is little reason why the University of Chicago should come to a different conclusion.

Beyond practical consequences, the University of Chicago emphasizes the Core, the expression of which is the “Renaissance Man”, well versed in all realms of knowledge. While this usually comes into practical application across disciplines, it should also apply within them. It seems contradictory to this central ideal of our College for students to be able to receive such a strong background in the Americas, Europe, East and South Asia, and the Middle East without having the same opportunity for Africa.

Finally, at a school fixated on the search for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, there may be no better reason to expand our course selection on Africa than the simple fact that it is a fascinating topic. Particularly in the post-decolonization era, the nations of Africa have experienced a bizarre mixture of dictators, freedom fighters, social experiments, and policy disasters unlike anywhere else on the planet. Almost every country on the continent has lessons to teach about the power of popular movements, the strength of ethnic ties, the best ways to establish lasting democracy, and the worst ways to bring about economic growth. A well taught course on these highly relevant subjects would certainly prove to be extremely interesting to the undergraduate population. Political science majors here frequently complain about the lack of classes in the department and the fierce competition for seats in the most attractive ones. What better way to address those complaints than by giving students the opportunity to examine topics such as the anti-apartheid movements in Rhodesia and South Africa, the socialist experiences in Tanzania and Ethiopia, the deep background of the Congolese War, or the hope and tragedy of civil-military relations in Nigeria?

I by no means intend to criticize the African and African-American studies department, or in particular professor Ralph Austen, who between modern Africa, the Mande World of West Africa, and African civilizations currently teaches three of the four Africa-focused courses at the University of Chicago. However, the time has come for the administration to begin an effort to bring more scholars like him to the South Side. We can no longer afford to lag behind other schools of our caliber in this important and exciting field. This college deserves to have as well reputed a faculty and course selection in African studies as it does in economics.