I’ve been living outside of the United States for a little over a month now. Cars drive on the left here. Bike lanes are more packed with commuters than the roads themselves are packed with cars. The Tube closes at midnight on weeknights and at 12:30 for those who want to stay out super late on the weekends. And, as one unlucky American friend of mine learned, you can’t refer to Queen Elizabeth II as “Lizzie.” The first real culture shocks I felt studying abroad in England this semester were the difference in the education system and the shift in priorities placed on academic work.
In one class that focuses on human rights and world politics, we discuss the authority of Western democracies and their interference in non-Western societies, notably in Africa and the Middle East; this distinction most often comes across as The West versus The Poor. The Western “democracies,” as they are called, are both the perpetrators and the justified critics in such discussions. The West seeks to rescue the barbarians of the so-called “uncivilized world” from sub-Saharan Africa to the Amazon to the desert of Afghanistan by handing them our perceptions of what human rights are, penned by Locke, Hobbes, and the United Nations. For example, referring to female circumcision practices as female genital mutilation implies condescension and disgust, but the localized term “cutting” refers to accepted cultural norms and values.
This dichotomy of the West and the rest of the world is appalling to me because it both dehumanizes developing countries and asserts that they are more authentic cultures without industrialization. At first, I felt that this alarming presentation was unique to the white guilt of the former British Empire, which, though a Western democracy, has committed its own human rights violations, notably the massacres in Amritsar, India, and Derry, Northern Ireland.
But doesn’t Columbia teach the exact same dichotomy?
What do you gain from taking African Dance, anyway? (Seriously. I implore someone who has taken this class to tell me what intellectual enlightenment they experienced regarding Africa in the comments.) We are given a list of classes, a majority of which lie within the fields of anthropology and history, aside from specific regional studies, such as Latin American or East Asian studies. Perhaps a psychology course on perceptions of race and ethnicity would be more intellectually appealing than, say, Sex in the Tropics (which I’m sure is quite stimulating, nonetheless). These courses fetishize non-Western cultures when they should be providing comprehensive studies of them.
The Core makes up a third of our academic studies and is grounded in the Western canon, from literature to music. We should be incorporating these race and ethnicity studies into the Core. We’ve already incorporated some works by women into the Core, with Jane Austen in Literature Humanities and Mary Wollstonecraft in Contemporary Civilization. Last week, the university began a lecture series on feminism in the Core discussing whether Ovid was actually a proto-feminist and how those books of the Metamorphoses are passed up for the aggressive and paternalistic tales of Troy. But the various classes on “American history since 1945” neglect to mention the illegal and inhumane detention of thousands of Japanese-American citizens in the western United States by the American government.
Our Western democracies are so concerned with being politically correct and racially sensitive that our discussion of culture is distorted. We are the white West, they are the colored Other, and we are Civilized. Yet I say they are civilized, in their own way. The world isn’t black and white. In order to truly understand non-Western cultures, we must not tiptoe around them. The polarity of studying non-Western culture both as underdeveloped and more genuine is unhelpful, as is the chasm between repenting for the actions of our forefathers and still considering ourselves superior to everyone else. We distinguish between the West and the non-West, but how can they be separated in our highly globalized world? To separate these cultures is irrelevant when they have been interacting with and shaping each other for centuries.
History is a comprehensive analysis of events and their causes and effects. If I’ve learned anything as a history major, it’s that there is the victor’s perspective and the loser’s perspective, and then there’s the truth.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and political science. She is currently studying abroad at University College London. She is the managing editor of Helvidius and a former director of finance and strategy for Spectator.
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