April 25, 2014

Reconsidering eurocentrism

Editors of the Chicago Journal of History defend the history major.

According to Jonathan Katz in “Revising History” (4/18/14), there is an “educational gap” between those who study “American or Western European history”—“itself,” the author graciously admits, “not a crime”—and those who, like the author, concentrate in non-Western fields. He paints a picture of the University in which the former pass through their time here in ignorant bliss, never “questioning or examining the West in a greater context,” while the latter, heroically struggling to become true “citizens of the world,” must suffer the boorish aggressions of the Americanists and Europeanists.

As editors of the Chicago Journal of History, an undergraduate historical review based at the University, and as history majors focused in European fields, we feel compelled to respond to the author’s charge of rampant Eurocentrism. With regard to the Core Curriculum, the author’s proposition to introduce a Sosc sequence in East Asian, South Asian, or Islamic thought certainly seems like a reasonable one. His criticisms of the history department, on the other hand, are factually unfounded and conceptually flawed.

As the author noted, the program requirements for the history major are minimal: students take 12 courses, including four electives and two as part of the senior seminar sequence. While it is true that the department does not impose a “non–North Atlantic” field requirement on majors (nor does it impose any kind of “North Atlantic” or “Western” field requirement), it does, nonetheless, actively endorse intellectual exploration. To quote the College Catalog, majors are “urged to take courses that introduce significant civilizational or chronological breadth.” Now, compare this to the distribution requirements for the undergraduate history program at Yale University, which groups Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East into a single two-course “LAAA” requirement.

Would it make for a more stimulating academic environment if every student were literate in every field of history? Possibly. But it hardly seems fair to demand that students do so, just as it would be unfair to mandate that students take a course in American history. For those interested in “non–North Atlantic” history, literature, culture, etc., the department and the University offer a full complement of resources: History alone offered nine undergraduate courses directly relating to Asian history in Winter 2014, six in Middle Eastern history, and seven in Western European history. A cursory glance at the Fields/Programs pages of the department’s website reveals an academic community well-balanced in its research interests (10 active faculty members in Modern Europe, nine in East Asia, for example), and several faculty members actively engaged in comparative work.

Of course, these geographic divisions are fluid (constructs), and numbers, admittedly, don’t tell the whole story. And that brings us to the conceptual flaws in the author’s argument. What, after all, is the “West”? The author seems to know: It is, he believes, Western Europe, the U.S.—it is the “white, Christian, North Atlantic world.” But is Mexico not Western? What about Hungary? Israel? Would studying Russia count toward his proposed “nonWestern” course requirement? What about European Civilization III, a course on Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period? Who gets to decide?

In his pathbreaking study Provincializing Europe (2000), Dipesh Chakrabarty, a faculty member in the Department of History, speaks of an “imaginary” Europe—a  bundle of assumptions and prejudices that have long led social scientists to impose a one-size-fits-all (European) model of modernity on the non-European world. This is what constitutes Eurocentrism. Faculty, graduate students, and, contrary to what the author asserts, many undergraduates are fully aware of this pitfall. In fact, Europeanists themselves increasingly recognize the limits of employing terms such as “class,” “nation,” and “history” in their own field of study. Imaginary Europe is embedded not just in the orthodox historiography of the non-Western world, but, as Europeanists would readily admit, in the historiography of the West, too. By setting up a formal, curricular distinction between the “West” and the “Non-West,” we would run the risk of perpetuating and reifying an artificial “West vs. Rest” dichotomy that is only beginning to be problematized.

We fully acknowledge that Eurocentrism is alive and well in the world. But it certainly doesn’t find a home in the institutional structure of the University. Students of history should read widely, should be eager to challenge their preconceptions. But there is no reason to think that a UChicago undergraduate career focused on American, European, or “North Atlantic” history is somehow inherently “incomplete.”

Thomas Prendergast is a fourth-year and Pranav Jain is a third-year in the College.