Humanities courses should limit eurocentric worldview

Humanities courses should limit eurocentric worldview

Written by Nikki Suzani, Copy Editor

Eurocentric. This four-syllable word encompasses a world of meaning and promotes values that are deeply inculcated into students’ minds due to the education they receive. In order for a course to be eurocentric, the course must be rooted in a European value system that seeks to exclude or diminish other values. Intentionally or unintentionally, the world history and many literature courses at Gunn boasting descriptions of international breadth are heavily focused on the European and Western world and often minimize the accomplishments and ideas of other cultures.

Ninth grade World History, a required course, is one of the most blatant examples of this. Accord- ing to the 2018-2019 Course Catalog, the course covers “important historical events in the world, from the Age of Enlightenment to the birth of the Cold War.” Notice that the course, based off of its name, attempts to cover all important events throughout the world, and gives no indication of its European base (as Advanced Placement European History, for example, would). However, the eurocentricity is already rooted within the course description itself. The two major events it mentions are the “Age of Enlightenment,” which was focused in Europe (specifically France), and the Cold War, a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the Prentice Hall World History textbook used for the World History course, the third section about “Regional Civilizations” attempts to cover 1100 years of history, from the year 500 to the year 1650, of three East Asian countries in exactly two pages. Not only does this provide insufficient information about those three countries (Japan, Mongolia and China), it also glazes over important historical events that had lasting effects on civilizations. This skew is an issue because it reinforces the idea that what occurs in the Western world is more important than the Eastern world and should be more heavily focused on, ultimately diminishing the accomplishments of those in the Eastern world. In addition, the sections that attempt to cover the entirety of Asian history, African history and Latin American history do so in one chapter each. Considering that about 20 chapters cover different specific issues related to Europe, these chapters seem like a half-thought-out-idea and certainly don’t do enough to avoid any eurocentrism.

Aside from these few sections, the majority of the book relates specifically to the West. The contents make this very clear by moving from “Nationalism Triumphs in Europe” to “Growth of Democracy in the West” to “Crisis of Democracy in the West.” On top of solely covering the European parts of the world, the values within the history textbook also continue to reinforce eurocentrism by attempting to equate freedom with democracy. It touches on Rousseau, Hobbes and other European philosophers who all provided contrasting definitions of what freedoms should be allotted, but glances over what freedom itself means. For example, there are arguments to be made that freedom can persist in the Muslim world without necessarily having a democracy, and that religion can be important in balancing out freedom; the book never even points these arguments out. This imbalance illustrates their refusal to promote other perspectives, and gives readers an illusion of choice to decide for themselves what freedom is. Interestingly, 10th grade Contemporary World History also does this as teachers can cite whatever articles they want and tend to cite articles from the Western world written about Eastern countries. Often cited, for example, is the New York Times, which typically subscribes to the more European definition of freedom. The textbook also attempts to gloss over the atrocities that occurred as a result of European imperialism and, instead of talking about the atrocities the colonies had to face, presents imperialism as matter-of-fact: “they needed to fight over this specific area.” For instance, when talking about settlers taking North America from natives, the book has only one paragraph detailing how natives were dying due to disease, without mention that this disease came from American colonists. It also elaborates on the benefits Native Americans provided for the colonists, portraying them simply as tools to aid European settlement. There is no mention whatsoever of the “Trail of Tears,” ignoring the Native American genocide.

Some might argue that it is okay for history courses to be eurocentric, because we are in a Western civilization and that is the history that matters the most to us. However, hearing about the atrocities our civilizations have committed can help us ensure that they will not happen again. If no one learns about how discrimination led to murder in the case of the Native Americans, there’s no reason for us to attempt to avoid discrimination later and not “repeat history’s mistakes.” Hearing ideals from other parts of the world can also help humanize other countries’ people and avoid the ideology that only Europeans are thinkers.

Others might argue that Contemporary World History is intended to diminish eurocentrism as it is explicitly based on other parts of the world, but it still contains values of eurocentrism. It is a semester-long course attempting to cover six other continents, and only spends three weeks, for example, on the entire continent of Africa. Considering that about 20 chapters cover different specific issues related to Europe, these weeks are portrayed as of sec- ondary importance to those focusing on Europe.

Another key subject area that lacks outside influence is English. Regardless of whether they advertise themselves as “world” courses, English courses should offer other viewpoints to show students different types of literature. Two advanced English courses, Literary Style and Contemporary Heritage, are both required courses for those in the advanced lane, but both lack in terms of other ideals. Four of the recommended books in these classes are “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. Simply by looking at the authors of the texts it is already apparent that all of these authors are either British (in the case of Golding and Shakespeare) or American (Lee and Angelou). Some might argue that both Lee’s story and Angelou’s autobiography tackle a fundamental issue of racism that transcends all geographical boundaries, but this argument fails to take into account the concept of eurocentrism. While racism is a world issue, both of the stories focus on how America tackles racism and how to avoid that, rather than, for example, the racism present in Middle Eastern countries and how it differs. Although this is an important topic, novels from other cultures can also cover it. A greater effort needs to be made to find international literature that can educate students on issues such as racism from a less eurocentric standpoint. Others may argue that the addition of “The Kite Runner” by Khalid Hosseini and “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez as optional books in Contemporary Heritage that teachers may cover is enough to solve this problem. However, Gunn needs to mandate that teachers teach these books and continue to provide more options from other countries’ authors that are still excluded from this list (such as the entirety of East Asia) to fully combat its eurocentric culture.

In order to resolve this problem, Gunn has to take two steps. First, the school should find supplemental texts that cover important world events that the history books ignore, such as the Trail of Tears, the Persian empire and others. These supplementals should be a mandatory part of the curriculum so that all students, regardless of their teacher or lane, have the ability to see unique perspectives from other parts of the world. Second, in English classes, Gunn should add more non-European, non-American authors with stories focused on other parts of the world such as the novel “The Clay Marble” by Minfong Ho about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Only when these steps are taken can we solve the prevalence of eurocentricity in our humanities courses.