Opinion | Letters to the Editor

Reconsidering the West

To the Editor:

Lanbo Zhang’s article (West versus west, Feb. 7, 2013), which critiqued the way students encountered and discussed the concept, “the West,” was problematic, offensive, and thus begs a response. Throughout his entire article, whether intended or not, Zhang essentially claims that the Global Core and similar spaces where students are asked to deconstruct “the West” are anti-intellectual, uncritical, and unscholarly. He writes that in those spaces, “the Western mentality” is “bastardized and unfairly depicted” and that class conversation “devolves into an indictment of Western civilization’s most cherished values.” These points are of great concern to me not just because they’re ridiculous and extreme, but because they reflect a larger institutional problem–a reactionary response from students and faculty to academic disciplines and scholars that require students to rethink their most cherished beliefs, including—but not limited to—“the West” and its relationship to the Third World.

This dismissive response has resulted historically in the underfunding or dismantling of academic fields of study, the denial of tenure, or even the denial of Ph.D.s for certain scholars. I suggest Zhang read the work of professor Paul Zeleza for a thorough discussion of how these dismissive responses explain why African studies is not given its due respect. I would also suggest he read about the experiences of Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop who was actually denied a Ph.D. from a university for his attempts at encouraging a solid deconstruction of “the West.” Zhang’s response, and others like it, reflect an unwarranted fear and encourage an academic setting in which it is considered wrong to require students to rethink their dearly held beliefs regarding “the West.”

Zhang engages in the very same game of caricature he claims he derides. He begins his piece by mentioning the Global Core, then moves on to his experiences from Asian humanities (which is still too general) to make his point—but then indicts Global Core as a whole. This is unfair. It treats his experiences in this narrow subset of classes (within a large field) as exemplary of intellectual practice in the Core more generally.

He doesn’t demonstrate even a cursory understanding of the history, function, and content of certain classes considered part of Global Core. His claim that we “desire to compare and contrast the Western with the non-Western” is false and misses the point of classes such as professor Mahmood Mamdani’s Major Debates in the Study of Africa. There, the framework of comparison is precisely what is rejected in his class on the grounds that it sets up one society or one way of being as “normal” and another as not. Moreover, the notion that class conversation “devolves into an indictment of ... cherished” values from the West grossly misrepresents the nature of class conversations. In the class, I am specifically asked: If there is solid evidence that science, mathematics, monotheism, philosophy, agriculture, and writing, existed in places like Northeast Africa and Southwest Asia long before they were present in regions we now call “the West,” how can they be termed “Western values”? This is a perfectly legitimate question to pose to students in an effort to get them to rethink the concept.

Kambi Gathesha, GS ’14

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