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The ‘Western Only’ Curriculum

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Are Educators Handicapping Students for the Globalization Era? Case Study: St. Johns

This essay is provoked by the reading list of St. John’s College, one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions in the US, sent to my son and thousands of potential applicants to colleges. Their cover page proudly states that this list of great thinkers constitutes the complete program at St. John’s. Something appears to be rather strange about this list of great thinkers…

The startling fact is that there is not even one non-western thinker on this list. What about Buddha, Confucius, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Shankara, Vivekananda, Nagarjuna, Lao Tzu, the rishis of theUpanishads, J. Krishnamurti, Dalai Lama, and hundreds of other great thinkers from the East? What about the Eastern thinkers who:

– Developed the first complete grammar of any language thousands of years before the West started to even think of grammar?

– Developed the decimal number system now taken for granted, along with other major foundations of astronomy and mathematics?

– Discovered and practiced enhanced states of consciousness, including many of the fields appropriated into modern psychology, whereas the West until recently ignored the study of the mind and then focused mainly on the study of mental disorders?

– Constructed sophisticated and elaborate systems of epistemology and logic, centuries before similar questions were addressed in Europe?

– Uncovered healing mechanisms, which the modern medical establishment is now beginning to appreciate and incorporate?

– Pioneered lifestyles of vegetarianism and sacredness of nature, based on the related ideas of reincarnation and that animals too have ‘souls’?

I am not picking on St. John’s per se, as the situation is endemic in American academia. Many philosophybooks even state explicitly that there is nothing east of Greece worthy to be included in a modern education. Most philosophy departments have virtually no courses on non-western thinkers, and those that do have a small emphasis on them, often portrayed in a patronizing and derogatory manner. Likewise, in psychology research and popular writings, it has become commonplace to appropriate from eastern sources masking the origins to make the modern scholar appear original and ‘scientific’. The taboo of the East as a source of universal ideas has created a market for bootleggers, who first spend years studying from the East and then broker the repackaged knowledge in their own name. The academic curriculum of the classics totally ignores the great classics from the East, as if they did not even exist. The history of science as portrayed today virtually ignores the contributions from the East, when in fact they pioneered many of the things that were appropriated centuries later by the West, such as paper, printing, and gunpowder.

Some of the major falsehoods being perpetuated for the sake of loyalty to cultural membership are:

– The West is considered ‘rational’ and the East as ‘mystical’. This is particularly serious since the Church denounced mystical experiences as heretic and later Kant firmly established in the European mind that rationality and mysticism were mutually exclusive.

– Non-western beliefs are considered ‘world negating’. This is often considered proven by the poverty in non-western countries during the colonial and post-colonial period.

– The East, as a result of (2), is portrayed as not having the West’s social systems and ethics. It is portrayed as not contributing towards advancement, leaving the West to shoulder this burden. This is seen as further support for western intervention from a privileged position.

– Eastern religions are classified as polytheistic whereas the West claims that it gave the world the notion of monotheism (heard directly from God). Polytheism, being neo-paganism, was already rejected by Greco-Semitic religions millennia ago, and is therefore implicitly or explicitly inferior.

What is wrong with all this? Here is what is wrong with this education:

– Students will encounter the East in multiple ways in the globalization era. During my business experience in 25 countries around the world, far too many times I came across well-meaning but naive Americans who felt more comfortable staying within the ‘MacDonald’s cocoon’ rather than meaningfully engaging in other cultures. On the other hand, eastern cultures, fresh out of colonialism, have a renewed appreciation of their heritage and combine this with their understanding of the West. This stereotyping places American students at a handicap in the global era.

– The geo-political harmony of the world cannot be sustained if tomorrow’s leaders of business and government are culturally and intellectually parochial and narrow-minded.

– Given the rapidly increasing pluralistic and multi-cultural domestic environment in America, social harmony in neighborhoods, workplaces and classrooms requires a genuinely globalized education.

– Left to bootleggers, the enormous wisdom of the East is delivered to modern society distorted and in dribbles, for the self-serving needs of a few scholars in the middle.

– The standards of ethics in scholarship should not be lowered when appropriating from the East, in the same way as the standards of labor, medical testing and environmental laws must not be lowered when American firms manufacture off-shore.

Let us examine what the main causes behind this institutionalized trend to marginalize the East in America’s collective psyche might be. Besides personal biases of the scholars, I offer the following theory, based on the prevailing cultural narrative in the West. The narrative serving as the implicit paradigm of America’s self image in history, has the following background:

– Rooted in the canon of the sinful and condemned past of man, history has been constructed by Europeans over the past four centuries as the story from dark to light, from bad to good, from backward to advanced, symbolizing the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, reason over superstition, freedom over bondage, and the transition from less western to more western. As a consequence, nothing ancient could be better than what is modern, especially since the West was not a major civilization until recent times.

– Therefore, the prevailing construction of history is depicted as the destiny of the ‘winning’ races, religions and ideas in a Darwinian game. Because the West got its marching orders straight from God, via historically unique prophets who were geographically and culturally of the West, it is therefore inferred that the truth, values, and ideas from such a western system must be absolute. Accordingly, the West must be shown as the founders of civilization, including philosophy, religion, social systems, science and culture.

– The enormous success of science and technology in the past two centuries is presented as the epitome of this victory, and considered as irrefutable proof of the West’s destiny. Fred Dallmayr calls it, “the robust self-assuredness and self-congratulation celebrating modern western culture as the Zenith of human evolution.”

– Furthermore, it is viewed as God’s plan that this be spread to the world, to save others. Hence, the West must now go and convert all others and project its beliefs upon others, by hook or crook, to carry out its civilizing mission under this plan. Therefore, globalization is seen largely as the imposition of modern, western ideas upon others. Local traditions are seen as defects or diseases whose cure is the West’s responsibility.

(Interestingly, since the Native Americans themselves have been virtually exterminated, their traditions are no longer seen as a threat to the West, and hence are gaining respect and recognition.)

Dallmayr refers to this mentality as, “pretensions of intellectual universalism” and “chauvinism of idiom.” Foucault and Derrida also challenged this superiority complex, and Merleau-Ponty hoped for a renewed learning experience, achieved through an opening of the West to its excluded ‘other’. But these ideas fell mostly on deaf ears even among those who paid great tribute to these post-modernist thinkers.

Published: 2001