April 18, 2014

Revising history

Including study of non-Western cultures would fill the gap in students’ understanding of philosophy and enhance existing knowledge of Western canon.

Dear UChicago, we need to have a talk about your Eurocentrism.

Yes, this is the norm at American universities. Yes, we invented the Great Books tradition. Yes, our students graduate with the ability to reference the greats of Western civilization: Smith and Rousseau, Plato and Arendt. Yes, these are things that provide the vim and vigor of American intellectual life.

We still need to talk.

Let’s start with one of my majors: history. Yes, there are plenty of professors and students, including myself, who concentrate in non-Western fields, be it transnational migration, East Asia, or “country M” [Mexico]. But the large majority of students who concentrate in American or Western European history—itself not a crime—never take a course with a focus outside the North Atlantic.

This educational gap has consequences. One is that many students are unable to comprehend comparisons or parallels between American and international history. Another is that students who do study non-Western fields are constantly asked to rehash or reframe our fields in “easy” terms for these students—yet these latter students are not always asked to examine their own assumptions about the United States. (Thankfully, sometimes they are, by professors and graduate students.) Though the history department seems aware of this discrepancy—and has sought to address it through additional course offerings and lectures—the lack of a non-Western requirement means that many students pass through school with a gaping hole in their knowledge of global history.

Beyond the history major, there is the social sciences core requirement: a collection of largely dead white men, with a few women and Frantz Fanon thrown in. Occasionally, some Power sections read Martin Luther King, Jr. It is true that the thinkers we do read are hugely important to the way American society operates and thinks of itself today. But why is Locke emphasized over DuBois? Why do we read Machiavelli for statecraft, but give short shrift to Chanakya, his Indian forebear? “This is the norm” is a pathetic answer for an institution of this caliber.

It is essentially possible for students to pass through four years at this institution without questioning or examining the West in a greater context, or looking at countries and cultures that rely on different canons. One can study the colonizer without the colonized, the North without the South. For an institution that claims to be adventurous and intellectually stimulating, this is a hopelessly provincial attitude. Furthermore, it produces a culture in which comparisons outside the North Atlantic are disregarded and ridiculed, in which the student of other topics must always cater to those who study the “main” topics.

Some might argue that it is not necessary for people to read or study outside the West. The idea is that the Western canon is enough of a toolbox to understand the world, and perhaps that anything else will be irrelevant to the student’s life. I would disagree. You cannot really claim to have wrestled with the West until you’ve actually had to study things from outside the white, Christian, North Atlantic world. Not to mention that in a world returning to a far more common situation in history—that of a powerful Asia and Africa—an inability to engage with non-Western cultures would make applying learning in most contexts—not only professional environments—much more difficult.

What would be so tragic if students were required to take just one course, even, covering topics outside the “West”? For those students concentrating on Western-centric majors, it would offer the opportunity to examine or re-examine orthodoxies centered on an idea of a “normal” and yet somehow specially divergent West. For others, it would offer a place in the curriculum for topics often difficult to access outside the Civilizations requirement of the Core. We have world-class scholars on the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, and our university is unparalleled in the study of ancient Mesopotamia—a series of civilizations that not only developed before Greece and Rome, but greatly influenced both. If students are unofficially required to take an economics course, because of our stellar faculty, should they not also be required to do the same for Near Eastern languages and civilizations?

Even the professors who teach the venerated Western canon agree. Shadi Bartsch, in a talk I went to recently, noted that it is “essential” that the “Great Books” be studied alongside other cultures’ histories, philosophies, and canons, because a liberal arts education should produce better citizens of the world. UChicago should live up to that ideal—and outgrow its Eurocentrism.

Jonathan Paul Katz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history and geographical studies.