Viewing the world through the West’s eyes

Students deplore Eurocentric focus in history department and call for change

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Eurocentric focus

Last October, fourth-year history students Liem Ngo and Danielle Lee wrote to The Gazette frustrated with the Western history department’s disregard for Asian, African, and Latin American history, feeling it was contradictory for an international institution to focus only on North American and European history.

“We are not critiquing the professors and how they teach the courses; they try to be as pragmatic and mindful of a historical view as possible in their courses,” Ngo said, adding their concern was about the lack of diversity in history courses offered at Western.

Ngo said there are no courses on black history, one course on Chinese history, one course on Japanese history, and one survey course on East Asian history " nine world history courses in total " throughout the entire history program. The department offers 27 European and 17 North American courses.

“A lot of the courses we have to take, the mandatory courses, are European-based,” Ngo said. “Out of the module of six or seven courses, it’s mandatory you take four courses that are North American or European-based, which doesn’t leave you much [room] to take any courses at all.”

World history courses, like Chinese or Japanese history, are broad survey courses with no specialized course options.

“If you look at the availability of European or North American history courses, it’s so distinct and so specific, whereas with Chinese history you cover 2,000 years of history in one year,” Ngo said.

They also expressed concern about hiring professors in non-European or North American history. Ngo had a Chinese history professor last year who was a part-time professor and also taught at the University of Toronto. Lee questioned why Western, as a multicultural and diverse institution, outsources professors while other universities have qualified full-time professors in these areas.

Ngo emphasized non-European or North American histories play a crucial role in understanding the context of current affairs.

“[What] is happening in Africa right now has a lot to do with European colonialism, but we learn European colonialism through European colonial eyes,” Lee said, explaining her British history course doesn’t address colonialism’s impact on India or Africa.

For Ngo and Lee, the issue isn’t about taste or preferences for courses in non Western history, but an essential part of a modern education.

“We live in a very globalized society today and I think a lot of the problems we have in the world are from misunderstanding,” Lee said. “If you’re only taking European or North American history, you’re going to have a Westernized view on the world.”

“As the letter [to The Gazette] quite fairly points out, they are not accusing anybody of some terrible bias,” said Professor Ben Forster, chair of Western’s history department. “What they are saying is that this is a structural problem. It’s the character of the curriculum and that is fair enough.”

Forster explained the department has grown tremendously in student population and enrolment the past seven or eight years. The department undertook numerous curricular changes; in particular, students must now take a course in non-North American or non-European history, which filled a gap in the program and led to appropriate hires.

The requirement was pushed by Professor Luz Hernandez-Saenz .

“We felt many students were leaving the department learning only Canadian history and they needed some context,” Hernandez-Saenz said.

“The university mandates us to have particular areas of strength and in geographic terms that has to be North America and Europe,” Forster said, adding, “In the period of growth we hired more substantially into those areas than others because it was more effectively justifiable in budgetary terms and student demand terms than undertaking something outside North America.”

Both Forster and the dean of social science, Brian Timney, said the history department has changed for the better, hiring nine new professors over the last few years and planning to hire more.

“The last two to three years there has been a growing recognition that we need to look more broadly and not just at different countries, but different areas of history,” Timney said, adding the department is working on new areas of study, including environmental history and public history.

The dean and chair are both writing budget proposals, which include multiple new positions.

“One of our ambitions... in four years is to hire someone who does Latin American history and we’d like to hire a second person doing something in the history of Asia,” Forster said. “We’d like to hire as well somebody who does the history of imperialism, which might have a focus on Africa, Southeast Asia or India, and the Latin Americanist would focus on slavery.”

“I don’t anticipate [the history department] will be getting two or three [appointments] a year for the foreseeable future because there are limits to how big they should be growing,” Timney said.

“I think [a broad education in a variety of areas] is important but I also think we can’t be all things to all people, but what we want to do is to make sure students get a good grounding.”

Forster and Timney describe the process as a delicate balancing act between the priorities of the department, the faculty, and the university, which takes time.

“It’s like turning a large ship around,” Timney said. “If you want to start developing a whole new area, it’s not just hiring faculty and introducing courses " that’s easy " but you’ve got all the other things to do as well. They would need to seek the resources to get not just additional faculty, but library resources.”

Hernandez-Saenz highlighted another problem.

“The higher you go in the [history] program, you need [to understand] other languages and the students are very reluctant to work in other languages, she said. “You are limited by sources that are translated into English and you will always have the view of these sources seen through Anglo eyes.”

Jennifer Languary, undergraduate representative to the Appointments Committee in the history department and a fourth-year history student, said appointments can only come with funding.

Forster said he was very happy to see Ngo and Lee’s letter and plans to include it in his budget to express student concern.

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