If you’re unfamiliar with the Yale history department’s course numbering system, here’s how it works: Course numbers 0 to 99 are first-year seminars, 100 to 199 are North American history, 200 to 299 are European history and 300 to 399 are assigned to courses on “the rest of the world.” Although the course numbering system is somewhat arbitrary, it shows the department’s priorities: North America and Europe get their own categories, and everywhere else is lumped together in a third category. According to current Course Demand Statistics, courses numbered from 300 to 399 only account for 25 percent of history course offerings. This means that about 85 percent of the world’s population is relegated to about 20 to 25 percent of Yale’s history courses. Furthermore, of the 2,241 seats in history courses in Spring 2017 — not counting senior essays — only about 15 percent of them were in 300-level courses. Yale claims to be a “global” university, but one has to wonder why one of its largest departments remains so parochial.
To some extent, this problem is about language. It is often difficult to find adequate textbooks or primary-source translations in English for certain regions of the world. Many undergraduates also don’t take advantage of the history department’s existing 300-level course offerings. However, this dearth of enrollment also has to be seen in context with the colonial development of history as a discipline.
The discipline of history that is taught in the Western academy developed out of a specific set of historical ideas that positioned Europe at the center of history. Everywhere else was labeled as timeless, ahistorical and backwards. These ideas are fundamentally rooted in colonialism and racism. In the eyes of colonial administrators, non-Europeans either had no history or no ability to recount their own history. Non-European works of history and literature were routinely derided by colonial historians and officials. Thomas Macauley, a British administrator in India in the 1830s, famously remarked, “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Colonial historians also wrote works which served colonial ends. The most commonly cited example of this in Indian historiography is Elliot and Dowson’s “History of India as Told by its Own Historians,” published in the 1870s, which translated, inadequately, a number of Indo-Persian works into English. Elliot and Dowson claimed in their introduction that these works would “make our native subjects more sensible of the immense advantages accruing to them under the mildness and equity of our rule.”
Now, that was a long time ago. But this version of history — in which non-European “others” are portrayed as monolithic, static and ahistorical — has persisted well into the 21st century. The work of political scientists such as Samuel P. Huntington, who conceived of the world as a “Clash of Civilizations” between the West and Islam, has had a profound effect on American policymakers in the post-9/11 period, encouraging American aggression in the Middle East and laying the foundation for today’s Trumpian brand of Islamophobia.
History is important in political terms. The stories we tell about the world are intimately related to the institutions of power that fund, appropriate or repress them. And without the promotion of critical scholarship that is centered beyond Europe and the United States, policymakers will be led astray by neo-Orientalists like Huntington. The neglect of critical non-Eurocentric scholarship also blinds us to the ways in which our own institutions are complicit in structures of white supremacy — and Yale has institutionally been involved with those structures since its inception. Yale was built on stolen native land and funded by slave money from India — its very existence is predicated on the historical extraction of land, labor and resources from parts of the world now relegated to the history department’s 300-level. And it’s the sorts of courses that are offered in the history department’s 300-level — along with courses in African Studies; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies and African American studies — that often provide students with the strongest critiques of colonialism and white supremacy. To graduate from college in Trump’s America without having taken an ethnic studies class or a course about the global south leaves graduates woefully unprepared to understand their position in an increasingly globalized and neoliberal world.
Yale students, especially current first and second years, should seriously think about taking these classes before they graduate. However, Yale’s administration and the history department have to play ball by expanding funding for hiring faculty members who specialize in underrepresented regions, expanding tenure for faculty members working on those regions and increasing resources for affiliated graduate students and staff. These measures should be seen as part of a broader vision to democratize Yale by promoting the expansion of resources for international, low-income, first generation and undocumented students.
Alex Williams is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .