Middle East studies in the News
The Privilege of Choosing to Starve [incls. Middle East studies, Columbia's MEALAC dept.]
by Alberto Tiburcio
As I was walking to campus this morning, I stopped by the small grocery store where I usually buy yogurt and carrot juice. The monotony of my daily purchases apparently has had its advantages, because the man at the cashier already knows me and smiles approvingly every time I enter the store. "No yogurt today, sir?" he asked, almost perplexed by my sudden change in diet. "Not today, thanks," I replied. The man, a young Bengali with a strong accent who knows I go to Columbia, asked me for the directions to the University bookstore. As I was pointing out that it is right below Lerner Hall, which is the glass building that completely messes up the harmony of an otherwise completely neoclassic campus, he nodded. "OK, yes, I know, it's at the right hand of the library, right?" And then he added: "You know, I like it that they have the names of Plato and Aristotle and all the Greek philosophers on the façade. That's good, they should be there."
One can only wonder at a man who is not white, not "Western" and whose life circumstances did not allow him to have the privilege of an elite education who nevertheless has the sophistication to see beyond the façade of "old white males" when thinking about the classics, a sophistication that, apparently, some Columbia students lack. The alleged Eurocentrism of the Core Curriculum, something that apparently upsets the strikers, is an absurdly false claim. Students have the option of taking classes on every single continent for the Major Cultures requirement, including a class on Africa in which they can read Decolonizing the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Further, for the Contemporary Civilization class, it is up to the instructor's discretion to assign Franz Fanon instead of Thomas Kuhn. So what is it that so upsets the people calling for a reform? Is it that, despite all diversifying efforts, Plato and Aristotle are still the foundations of rational thought, not only in the West, but in the world, and that because of that they continue to be required reading? Or is it that reading Hobbes is not a good enough incentive to think about justice because he was, after all, just another white male?
Some students like to point out that Columbia is lagging behind other Ivies in the field of ethnic studies, according to some flyers that were distributed (which, by the way, didn't include Yale and Penn. Is it perhaps because, after all, we do have more ethnic studies than other peer institutions?). But in that same flyer the students mentioned that Columbia's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race has 18 affiliated faculty.
Ethnicity is an object of study which can, and indeed is, studied through the methodological lens of various academic disciplines, namely anthropology, sociology, history, and evolutionary biology, to name but a few. "Ethnic studies," where it exists as a separate department, does not denote a distinct academic discipline, but a multidisciplinary department, the existence of which is not strictly necessary when a good number of scholars in other fields already study issues of ethnicity.
What about Area Studies then? What about MEALAC, EALAC, etc? As a student of Middle Eastern studies I am familiar with that question, and the answer is pretty much the same: the paradigm of Area Studies is problematic and it will likely fade as more disciplinary departments include more faculty studying the "non-West." Unfortunately, some universities (unlike Columbia, it must be said) don't have Asian specialists or Middle Eastern specialists in their history or literature departments, and that is why Area Studies, a post-World War invention in the U.S., continues to serve a certain function. Further, many historians (among other people in the social sciences and humanities) have manifested their dissatisfaction for being relegated to departments where they feel like they just serve the function of studying "exotic" cultures.
The quest for a separate ethnic studies department is more problematic than the strikers seem to realize. The idea of "Black studies," "Latino studies," and "Native American studies" is an epistemological paradigm that seems to imply that minorities are "objects to be studied" just as animals or plants are studied by zoologists and botanists. Do we have "White studies?" No. Is it that white people are the only dignified enough object of study for sociologists and political scientists? I want to think that is not the case.
But to speak about epistemological paradigms and the way they have shifted throughout the history of science, it is probably a good idea to read Kuhn, which is only one of many optional readings in the Core. Why are we not starving about that? Oh, I see—because Kuhn was just another dead white male.
The present Core Curriculum provides students with resources to talk about gender, race, power, and oppression. But speaking about oppression and privilege, let me further add: I come from Mexico, where most universities have virtually no forum to talk about social issues. Thus, the people who might potentially be more interested in making a living out of discussing these issues (presumably those who are most affected by the country's inequality) wouldn't even consider majoring in these fields anyway, not because they wouldn't want to, but because it doesn't pay well. The strikers are fortunate enough to live in a country that is willing and able to pay people to study whatever they want in colleges and universities. They are privileged enough to attend a university with a core curriculum that does provide them with tools for critical thinking. They are fortunate enough to choose to starve, unlike the real poor of the world. It seems to me that this hunger strike (or at least the inclusion of the demands on Core Curriculum reform) is in bad taste and an insult to people who have needed to go on hunger strike to demand real-life dignified working salaries.
The author is a student in the School of Arts and Sciences.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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