Sep 282006
Authors: Daniel Colbert Cavalier Daily U. Virginia

(U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Last week, as both of my regular readers will recall, I wrote about the lack of enlightened values demonstrated in the reaction of Muslim leaders to comments made by the Pope. On the same day, The Cavalier Daily reported on a plan presented to Student Council to “de-Westernize” the University of Virginia’s curriculum. The juxtaposition of these two events highlights the folly of downplaying Western ideas. That said, ensuring a global curriculum is a goal the University should strive for, and some of the issues raised by the Diversity Initiatives Committee ought to be addressed. In order to achieve this goal, though, the committee should adjust its approach so as not to do more damage than harm.

According to Ryan McElveen, the chair of the Diversity Initiatives Committee, the plan he presented “was inspired by the fact that students haven’t been able to get into language classes such as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.” The plan addresses this issue by suggesting that the University enlarge these language programs and expand the number of Asian and African languages offered.

The former suggestion is critical. The University must meet the demand for these languages as they become more and more important in almost all career fields. Chartering the teaching of other languages, though, is harder to justify. This would require hiring new faculty and would benefit only a small number of students, while most students would probably not notice. It is unfortunate that the University cannot offer every language that students would like to learn. Personally, I’d like to learn my ancestral language — Irish — but until there are enough students demanding it, it doesn’t make sense for the University to create an Irish program. The Romance language departments are bigger not because the University sees them as more important but because more students want to learn them.

A truly globalized curriculum means more than offering a few more classes on non-Western ideas. Offering those classes will only serve to give students more option to complete their one non-Western perspectives requirement, after which they can continue to ignore anything outside the West. The Diversity Committee is right to suggest setting up a committee to look at individual majors within the University, but this committee should evaluate current classes to see if they already incorporate a fair amount of non-Western ideas, where appropriate, or if they are too Euro-centric for the subject matter. The committee needs to remember that some classes and even some departments cannot avoid dealing exclusively or almost exclusively with Western ideas.

The other parts of the Committee’s plan are even more dubious. First, they suggest creating a Queer Studies minor. This minor might be justified in and of itself, should the University have the funds available. However, it does not in any way help the University create a more global curriculum. The ideas studied by such a program would not represent distinctly non-Western culture but, rather, a school of thought within the West and thus would be no more non-Western than a study of communism.

Another suggestion made by the Committee is to increase the number of race theory classes. Again, this suggestion is worth considering for its own merit, but it should not be considered a globalization of the curriculum. More race classes, McElveen asserts, could encourage conservative students to take classes dealing with race if the classes were taught in ways that did not alienate conservatives the way current classes do. If this goal can be achieved, then more race-based classes could be a good thing, but requiring students to take them through a North American Non-Western Perspectives requirement, as has been suggested, amounts to academic coercion.

Challenging one’s believes is good, but it cannot be forced. These suggestions do not stem from a desire to globalize the University’s curriculum but from an anti-conservative and anti-Southern bias, as is evidenced by their proponents’ harping on the University’s image as a “Southern” institution. The committee should drop these suggestions and focus on a platform of globalizing curriculum.

One issue not raised in the committee’s plan that should be reconsidered is the stipulation that classes based on minority sub-cultures within the West can fulfill the Non-Western Perspectives requirement. If the idea of the requirement is to expose students to new cultures and ideas, this clause needs to be removed. It allows minority students to get away with studying something not at all foreign to them and allows non-minority students to fulfill the requirement by studying subjects, like jazz, that are intrinsically American. This clause does not encourage a global or even a non-Western curriculum, but merely a non-white one.

It is incredibly easy to find fault with Western civilization. But for all its faults (and I do not mean to deny or detract from them) the West still has contributed a great deal of good to the academic world. European history has given us such horrible phenomenon as the Crusades, imperialism and Hitler, but it also gave us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Mr. Jefferson himself. We must take steps to globalize our curriculum, including looking at individual majors, meeting the demand for languages and eliminating the minority clause of the Non-Western requirement. We must be careful, however, not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and lose those aspects of Western thought that are infinitely valuable.

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