Universities obligated to transcend ethnocentrism

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A quick survey of courses offered by most social science departments would lead one to believe Europe and its progeny (the so called Western world) are the most important and valuable topics of discussion. Eurocentrism is nothing new or specific to universities but, as institutions of higher learning, universities have a responsibility to reverse this unfortunate consequence of imperialism.

At the undergraduate level, few courses focus on the Middle East, Africa or Asia. There is also little mention of non-European cultures in introductory and survey courses.

Beyond undergrad, the study of non-European cultures is relegated to “specialty studies” status. Scholars specializing in African politics, for example, are designated as “Africanists,” a label that precludes the scholar from contributing to the broader field of political science. Moreover, departments typically limit themselves to one specialist for each “specialty” region.

When non-European cultures are discussed, it often occurs within a demeaning and, at times, racist framework. A subtle example: geographic names are taken from European travellers and are oriented in a Eurocentric worldview (for example, the so-called “Middle East” describes an area that is only east and middle relative to Europe). Other labels for non-European groups or regions are misinformed or simplistic. For example, the labels “Arab world” and “Muslim world” refer to the Middle East but mask the plurality of ethnicities and religions coexisting in the region.

A less subtle example of eurocentrism is the prevalence of names like Fukuyama and Huntington on course reading lists " authors who maintain democracy, freedom and human rights are “Western values” foreign to and incongruent with Middle Eastern values, which are characterized as violent, irrational and barbaric.

These assertions form part of the Western narrative Egyptian scholar Leila Ahmed calls “the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam.” This narrative has a long history: for example, before the West criticized Islam’s orthodoxy and strictness, it looked down on its excess and licentiousness (one need think only of the narrative of the harem and the Turkish bath, Ahmed argues). To construct its own image, the West relies on the narrative of the inferiority of the East " an image characterized by freedom, rationality and progress (the same can be said of dominant representations of a long list of constructed others: women, French-Canadians, homosexuals, etc.).

This isn’t to say aspects of Islam or Middle Eastern practice don’t warrant criticism, especially regarding women’s status. But Western-centric criticisms are often hypocritical as well as mutually reinforcing.

For, as Ahmed points out, the veil and polygamy are no more oppressive than no veil and monogamy. As a society that oppresses, objectifies, and in some instances brutalizes women, it’s interesting the West focuses so much on the oppression of women in the Middle East.

Universities must strive to transcend eurocentrism. Moreover, it’s not just the exclusion and denigration of non-Western cultures in high school and university curricula that must be challenged, but the lack of teaching critical thought. We need an education system encouraging students to ask questions about hegemonic discourses and common-sense assumptions. Such an education would lead us to be critical of authority, seek progress, and a more equitable society.

This means more than just teaching about multiculturalism, tolerance, and the civil rights movement " successes that have been made. We must pay tribute to those who fought for our rights by learning about their struggles, but we must also continue questioning our society as they did theirs. In a sense, we betray their spirit by focusing solely on their successes and not on the persistence of other injustices.

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