Harvard Must Recognize That Truth is Worldly

Letters to the Editors

To the editors:

In his Nov. 6 op-ed, “Bring Back the Dead White Men,” Luke Smith ’04 supports a purely Western-based Core Curriculum, arguing that the enlightened perspectives of “dead white men” are effectively universal and sufficient for learning truth. He declares, “Western values include tolerance for many different ethnic and gendered perspectives, which is why women and minority readers will ‘see themselves’ in a Western canon, even if that canon doesn’t include many women and minority authors.”

Yet, no civilization can claim the flawless pursuit of values like tolerance, and Western civilization’s history reveals it as particularly imperfect. Western civilization is wrought with intolerance and oppression: expansive and imperialist supremacy efforts by Western nations—such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and 19th century colonialism—killed and oppressed millions in various countries in the world. Even the United States, prized by many as the bastion of liberty and equality, is no mere bystander of intolerant and repressive action. Many of America’s founders who espoused that “All men are created equal,” owned slaves in their own households; even modern United States history reveals subjugation of women and racial minorities, among others.

In fact, the increasing freedom and progress towards equality that we do see today is largely due to women and minority groups. In persistently pursuing their own convictions these groups were able to throw off the shackles of slavery and subjugation and transform Western society. Particularly in America, the forthright demands of women’s rights and civil rights activists brought about the legislation that now seeks to ensure that freedoms are protected both for minority groups and the American people at large. Thus, most of the changes that have begun to result in equal treatment have not come from white men within the “Western” tradition itself, but rather from people who were insightful enough to challenge its limitations and fight for the justice they were not granted under Western presuppositions.

And yet the evolution of Western society has not only been pushed by its non “white men” members—non-Western cultures have also continued the advancement of Western society. Scholars point to Islamic philosophy and science as deeply influencing the European Renaissance, a primary foundation of later Western thought. Much of modern science and technology draws from Arabic origins—numerals, algebra, trigonometry, navigation—as well as Chinese innovations—paper, printing and the compass. Gandhian ideals of satyagraha as expressed through the civil disobedience movements of African-Americans have further contributed to Western liberal thinking.

And now, in a world of ever-increasing cultural interconnection, where those in the Far East are only a click away from students in the Midwest, it is even more important to understand various global cultures and perspectives, recognize their mutual influence and seek their common evolution—as a means of realizing truth.

Thus, while it is indeed important to be familiar with the values of Western society and encourage a deeper understanding of Western culture, it is crucial that this knowledge be put into context. Comparative value is priceless: by studying various cultural perspectives, one is able to question and challenge one’s own views, acknowledge and gain from new and diverse views and learn from the differences that make up our unique cultural heritages.

When defining the Core Curriculum, Harvard should consider the worth and necessity of the content students study. Considering the various “non-white” influences which significantly pervade Western thought, this is a lofty task. And it’s all the more reason for such a curriculum to be multifaceted and worldly in nature, so that Harvard students both attain cultural literacy and graduate with a keen understanding of the significance of that literacy.

Those who support such a curriculum, are not, as Smith argues “multiculturalists who clamor for representation.” The goal is not for each Harvard student to have read one white author, one black, one pink, one blue. Rather, it is for each Harvard student to participate in a truly diverse world in which the greatest benefits are reaped from engaging, challenging and celebrating this diversity. Without diverse representation, Harvard runs the risk of letting its students come away with a false sense of the superiority of Western civilization. Indeed, that would be the real embarrassment: if in this increasingly global and pluralistic society, Harvard students were to graduate without an understanding of the context in which Western civilization exists.

Saritha Komatireddy ’05

Nov. 12, 2003

The writer is co-chair of the Student Advisory Committee of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.