Our narrow academic focus reinforces the supposed supremacy of the West, writes DIPO ADEBISI (Photograph by: Jennifer Boyer / Flickr)
“University is a place where one should play gracefully with ideas” Stephen Fry told the Phil at Trinity College Dublin in 2010, imploring the audience to free their minds from the shackles of parochialism and one-sidedness, and to do it with style. However, much of our mind-sets are formed by what we learn in lecture halls, and this informs how we interact with each other outside of them. Scanning through the curriculums of many humanities courses available in Ireland, one can find the same parochialism; the same one-sidedness that Fry advocated against. All too often, non-Western schools of thought are undervalued, non-Western thinkers are ignored, and thus the supposed supremacy of the West (indeed, of whiteness) is indirectly promoted.
The strangeness of this academic narrowness in our so-called “post-racial” age cannot be overstated. It is rarely questioned, although questioning it is not always met with grace, for this is not a harmless, unintentional modern development. Its roots lie in a ruthless colonial worldview which gave birth to a system which overwhelmingly benefits those who are, or can pass, as white (particularly white and male). In order to create a fair society for all, we must acknowledge that we still live in this system characterised by Western superiority and that it results in the following problems in universities.
Firstly, it means many humanities students are not receiving a proper education, in the sense that their minds are not being expanded. Instead, minorities are subtly reminded of their “place” while rich, white, heterosexual men have their egos stroked and their pseudo-superiority confirmed. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with these men but nor is there anything inherently special about them either that would warrant the subjugation of everyone else. They need not feel threatened by the highlighting of and concern regarding their unfounded privilege in society. Diversity, especially in education, always creates more than it destroys.
Secondly, universities do not just award degrees. They are, fundamentally, the physical manifestations of society’s state of mind and, through their alumni, influencers of it. In the current state of mind, people of colour, women (particularly black women) and the LGBTQ+ community are left out by default – fighting for inclusion, continuously defending and justifying their presence and worth. They are encouraged to adopt a victim mentality and are always aware of their “otherness.” Ultimately, one may argue in light of Trump’s election, they are never truly taken seriously.
This is not to promote pessimism. Instead, the intention is to highlight that it will take more than good intentions to change our thinking regarding race, gender and identity – any sensible person knows that we are all equal. What is concerning is that that equality is not always evident in practice – we need to level the playing field, to change our current system to one where no one is privileged or disadvantaged due to physical characteristics which they did not choose to have and often cannot change. There are few better places to start than universities.
Beyond changing the content of courses, however, we find another problem, namely the lack of ethnic and gender diversity among the professors themselves. Although female professors are reasonably, though not optimally, represented in the humanities, they are scarce in the STEM fields. It can be argued that this is a primary reason for many women shying away from the latter – societal pressures, coupled with a lack of women in leadership positions, often cause them to think that certain fields are not suited to those of their gender. This is also true in the case of non-white students, particularly non-white women who face a storm of stereotypes, both gender- and race-related.
Moreover, seeing an increase in the number of professors from previously underrepresented groups, especially at our top universities, sends a message not only to other members of that group but to society as a whole, to rethink their perceptions of these groups. This will not happen overnight but long-lasting, positive change never does. Ours is a society where bigots are enjoying increasingly more airtime than is ideal. Including them in conversations regarding equality and justice may be undesirable, but excluding those deserving of a place is nothing short of damaging.