Almost every year, students criticize the freshman Directed Studies program for its narrow focus on the Western canon. Within its syllabus, there is a striking paucity of texts written by females or minorities. But despite these criticisms, there has been little change in the curriculum over the years. Toward the end of the spring semester, as a nominal gesture, a couple of token black and female writers are featured along with a slice of Islamic history. However our focus on the content of the DS program must be coupled with an examination of broader structural forces. In order to fully understand the harms of having an extremely whitewashed version of a study of Western civilization, we have to examine the larger institutional forces that shape Yale, America and the whole of academia.
Even though I’ve only just begun the DS program, it’s already patently obvious that the curriculum is taught through a Eurocentric lens. While we’ve been studying ancient Greece as the bedrock of Western culture for the past two weeks, there has been no mention of the influential roles Egypt or India played in the formation of nascent European civilization. Additionally, there is no mention of the gender dynamics in Grecian civilization or the existence of religious female cults in Greece. Sappho, an important female literary figure who wrote in Ancient Greece, is also absent from the curriculum. I understand DS is a zero-sum game: the introduction of Tolstoy comes at the expense of Chekov and reading all of Thucydides means not reading any of Diodorus. But surely we can include someone as revolutionary as Sappho by cutting out bits of Herodotus or Livy.
One argument we often hear is that women and minorities simply didn’t publish the same quantity or quality as the white men who held positions of power in the classical world. But even if this is true and our readings are homogenous, there’s no reason why our professors can’t supplement the curriculum by discussing the lives and ideas of women and non-Western communities in lecture. There is a wealth of historical and cultural evidence with which we piece together not only their experiences and intellectual contributions but also the systematic discrimination they faced.
The exclusion of these voices is not limited, however, to the DS program. This is a pattern that has been exhibited in our broader University, higher education in America and across the world. They reflect structural barriers that different groups continue to face. Our lack of a multicultural alternative to DS is a reflection of Yale’s narrow educational focus.
As an institution, Yale has an endowment of around $24 billion and has come under criticism for giving nearly half a billion dollars to hedge fund managers. This comes at a time when our University is unwilling to get rid of the student income contribution, an issue which disproportionately affects minority students. For a school so well-endowed, it’s inexplicable we’re unable to use those resources in order to create a more inclusive education. I’m calling for the creation of a new program, one that differs from the DS program by focusing explicitly on giving intellectual voice to women and non-Western communities.
Higher education in America has always tilted towards the powerful. But since the development of a neoliberal economy, our universities have increasingly discouraged students and teachers from questioning existing power structures. Yale is not immune to this trend.
Some of Yale’s donations, such as the $10 million earmarked for a new Islamic law center or the whopping $150 million for the renovation of Commons, come from questionable sources that rely on the capitalistic practices often funding systemic oppression. I would posit that even beyond taking capitalism’s money, Yale and other universities are adopting capitalism’s ethos.
Just as capitalism gains its success on the backs of marginalized groups, the academy consistently writes marginalized groups — women, disabled bodies, minorities, LGBTQ and the poor, among others — out of the history books. This process intellectually justifies the demographic destruction capitalism yields.
As the premier freshman program, DS exerts a disproportionately powerful influence on Yale’s character. It’s not a coincidence that our Philosophy and History Departments are overwhelmingly white when first-year students are only introduced to white thinkers. It would be revolutionary if Yale could create a DS program to introduce impressionable freshmen to non-Western thinkers and history. I make this point not just for the sake of equality. African, Indian, Islamic and Asian thought truly has forged our way of life and the values we hold true. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, we’re doing our students a disservice by not exposing them to the rest of the world.
Isis Davis-Marks is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .