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The White Civ’s burden

“Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
  Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild —
  Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.”

So begins Rudyard Kipling’s famed 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” a bold and plain-spoken call to white people everywhere to uphold their duty to tame the rest of the world. It is with that same profoundly myopic zeal for the West that the Stanford Review has launched its campaign for a reincarnated Western Civilizations two-quarter series to replace the existing Thinking Matters curriculum.

Perhaps most striking about the piece accompanying its petition is its assessment of the impact and essence of Western civilization:

“The development of industry, political rights and globalization gave billions the economic and social power that serves as the basis for all other freedoms. Western civilization is, at heart, defined by a willingness to ask questions and enhance individual liberty.

If you ask most people on the planet, they would be able to tell you from lived experience that the “developments” which came along with the invasion by Western civilizations did not equate to a basis for other freedoms; it in fact led to their relegation to the bottom of a system that tried to strip them of their culture, their land and their dignity. They would tell you that, before the West colonized and occupied their land, they had different conceptions of life and liberty, which had serviced them well for the hundreds, if not thousands, of years prior to Western occupation.  

As for the claim to inquisitiveness and greater freedoms, such noble aspirations are inherently hampered by their position within a racist, sexist and classist system which sought — and still seeks — to explicitly uphold white supremacy and the subjugation of all others.

There is, however, one fact on which the Review and I can agree. Stanford does prepare us poorly for the challenges that we will face as scholars, individuals and communities. But while the Review interprets the problem as an insufficient dose of Western indoctrination, I view the problem as a lethal overdose.

Stanford is already a four-year academic exercise in Western Civilizations. In a lecture on environmental history, our professor somehow brought up Junipero Serra without mentioning his genocidal aspirations. In an introductory food systems class discussion on genetically modified organisms during Week 9 of the quarter, a student asked what “colonialism” actually meant, and the professor shrugged and looked at me for a response.

In her first lecture of the macroeconomics section of Econ 1, the professor rhetorically asked why Africa — yes, Africa — was so poor, and answered by saying because it has a low GDP. While true in the most technical of senses, the failure to mention colonialism, occupation and capitalism as driving forces in the creation of poverty, as well as the diverse nature of economies in Africa, reveals that her intention was not to drive us to think critically, but to spoon-feed us platitudes from the Western colonial canon.

The way to encourage meaningful engagement with the problems of our time is not through a series which lauds the systems that created these problems in the first place. Rather, we need courses that will force all students to face the realities of these histories and their contemporary impacts; courses that will make students question whether they should be the ones to go forward and make changes in the world, or if they should instead leverage the power and privileges they have been born with to uplift the voices of peoples with lived and learned knowledge on these topics, but who are constantly maligned by our Western systems of subjugation.

Before we have such courses, though, we must hire — as the Who’s Teaching Us? campaign so rightfully points out — more queer and trans faculty, indigenous faculty and faculty of color, and faculty who have dedicated experience in addressing tough questions about white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism within their fields.

If the Review has its way, Stanford will move even further towards the times of Kipling. A Western Civilizations series would explicitly entrench the idea that the purpose of education is neither to critically question oppression, nor even to critically deal with the problems of our time. Rather, a Western Civ requirement would necessitate that our education be centered on upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations; that our education be framed as a tool to carrying out our burden to reform the rest of the world in our own, imperfect, acutely deplorable image.

 

Contact Erika Lynn Abigail Persephone Joanna Kreeger at ekreeger ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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