In a book released earlier this month, titled “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto,” Yale-NUS professor Bryan Van Norden criticizes European philosophy for its exclusionary nature and implores universities to teach the philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa and the indigenous Americas alongside the Western canon.
“We need to wake up to the fact that the U.S. is an increasingly multicultural society in a world where it can no longer assume cultural dominance,” Van Norden said in an interview with the News. “You no longer count as a well-read person if you have only read Anglo-European thought. Philosophy must diversify or die.”
Van Norden praised the Common Curriculum at Yale-NUS, which requires that students be exposed to thinkers from all corners of the globe. He said that a cross-cultural education better prepares students to be global citizens and provides them with a deeper understanding of the history of philosophy.
He also criticized the apparent hypocrisy of contemporary philosophers who “repudiate the roots of racism and xenophobia, but not its fruits.” While they may be politically progressive, he explained, philosophy departments tend to be intellectually conservative because they are resistant to branching out of the Western philosophical tradition.
“Although there are exceptions, the majority of older philosophy faculty in the U.S. are very conservative intellectually, even if they are nominally progressive politically,” Van Norden said. “What they fail to recognize is that ‘building walls’ to keep out non-Western philosophy is part of the same xenophobic trend that seeks to build walls between races and religions.”
The same criticisms put forth by Van Norden have often been leveled against Yale’s Directed Studies program, which focuses predominantly on the Western canon and the humanities at the University in general.
Political science professor Bryan Garsten, chair of the Humanities Program and Directed Studies, was asked to coordinate curriculum development when Yale-NUS College was founded and had a hand in crafting the Common Curriculum that all Yale-NUS students are required to complete. Garsten told the News that the issue of intellectual diversity in D.S. has been at the forefront of his mind.
While he agreed with Van Norden’s view that philosophers should be interested in exploring different traditions of thought, he emphasized the importance of striking a balance between separation and integration when designing cross-cultural curriculums like that of Yale-NUS.
“There are a few dangers here. One is to orientalize the other traditions — to make them seem so exotic that we can never create conversations between them, and that’s a mistake,” he said. “The other is to assimilate them too quickly, and to think that we can easily bring these traditions together under the headings that we would be familiar with from our tradition. Then you’re doing violence to the distinct character of different trains of thought.”
For these reasons, Garsten said curriculums should be adjusted by way of gradual evolution, as opposed to immediate revolution. Notably, Garsten said, there is a group of professors within the Humanities Program at Yale working on constructing a more “comparative and global” set of courses. He added that D.S. began as an experiment to create a linked set of courses and that he saw no reason to neglect further experimentation.
Both Garsten and Van Norden said students should play a part in any transition toward a more intellectually diverse curriculum, not just for their own sake but also to establish an enriched philosophical tradition for the generations to come.
Amber Carpenter ’96, a D.S. alumna and professor who now teaches the first-year “Philosophy and Political Thought” course at Yale-NUS as part of the Common Curriculum, said that introducing students to philosophy in a way that goes beyond the “artificial boundaries of European language” allows them to see how dialogue among disparate traditions arise naturally.
“Because we have this common base of understanding philosophy as a global conversation [at Yale-NUS], I don’t have to justify or apologize for bringing in texts from any tradition that seems to me to be useful in understanding any topic or text that my students are working with,” Carpenter said.
Still, Garsten stressed that the Western works currently taught in D.S. are not just for “this or that group of people.”
“I am of the school of thought that thinks these books are treasures of human thought for all human beings, and I bristle at the idea that they are only for a certain group of people,” Garsten said.
Garsten explained that, at the beginning of the D.S. program, he reads students an excerpt from Souls of Black Folk, in which W.E.B. Du Bois says, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not,” in the hope that this will remind students that the works they will read are, in fact, accessible to all.
The Directed Studies program at Yale was established in 1946.
Daniel Dager | firstname.lastname@example.org