Learning from the West: What I’m missing from my liberal arts education

By Jagravi Dave

Image courtesy of George Patsouras


This began as a questioning of my hesitations. What was it about the education that I was receiving that made me so viscerally uncomfortable? It was a rejection I felt from somewhere within me: not a well-reasoned argument, but something instinctive and bodily. Why did it feel so strange for me to study these “classic” works, like those of Shakespeare? Was my education really fundamentally incomplete if I decided I didn’t want to study Plato? These questions themselves are very bodily, about the body—about my body as a brown body in an American, Western, educational system. Was it that the supposedly universal knowledge I was receiving through this system was not, in fact, representative of me? In his paper “Anthropos and Humanitas: Two Western Concepts of ‘Human Being’,” the Japanese philosopher Osamu Nishitani states: “We will be unable to liberate knowledge regarding human being from its unilateral and oppressive structure unless we clarify the kinds of structures and restraints it places upon our ‘knowledge’.” I am hoping, then, to seek out these structures that compose the boundaries of my education, my received knowledge.

In the United States there is a valuable educational institution, which we call a liberal arts college. The purpose of a college of this kind is to promote the pursuit of diverse and intersecting intellectual interests, or as expressed by the “About Us” page of Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, to bely “singular modes of understanding” and to “embrace both heritage and invention.” In receiving a liberal arts education we study the humanities, a pursuit meant to further knowledge of ourselves as humans and to expose us to various schools of reasoning. Both the United States and the liberal arts College of Arts and Sciences position themselves as institutions of the West, a term itself complicated and challenged by many including Naoki Sakai, a professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature at Cornell University, who argues in “Dislocation of the West” that “it is only our essentialist insistence upon its geographic and cultural uniformity that evokes the putative unity of the West.” I use “the West” to refer to both this perceived sense of unity, and also to the physical location of the United States and the European intellectual heritage with which it aligns itself.

Sakai says that it is this “unity of the West [that] seems to bestow a sense of coherence upon the configuration of disciplines in the humanities,” that makes the knowledge of the humanities appear universal and representative, and that consigns certain areas and populations to “objects of ethnic and area-studies.” In “Anthropos and Humanitas”, Nishitani establishes a distinction between the anthropos, the human being as an object of study, and humanitas, the human being as the knowing subject of all knowledge. From these two terms stem our names for the two disciplines of the study of human beings: from the former Greek term comes anthropology, and from the latter Latin term we have the humanities.  And so the knowledge encompassed by the humanities is knowledge of humans, produced by human beings themselves; the knowledge encompassed by anthropology, however, is knowledge of human beings as objects, as Other, as ones who can only be known about. Thus our study of the humanities exists always in reference to those that have been in subject positions, consisting of the cultural past and present of the dominant culture. Our study of anthropology consists of those deemed by the West incapable of producing knowledge and thus must be studied and classified. And so in a liberal arts college, when we study the humanities we are actually studying the intellectual history of a spatially-restricted tradition—the Western tradition. These are the ideas that form the structure of the educational system of which I am a part, and the result today is the insistence of the Western canon as an essential aspect of education in the humanities. And so when I study the humanities at Cornell University, the standard knowledge I am receiving is knowledge that has come almost exclusively from Western civilization.

One of the problems, of course, is that the West does not just belong to the West anymore. Sakai says, “Global modernization has accelerated cultural, economic, and political interchange between different regions and brought different forms of knowledge and power into more intense interaction.” The result, he says, is that “we live in an essentially modern world in which the West is ubiquitous.” Even going further back, the influence of the West upon the rest of the world through colonialism is undeniable. The relationship this creates between the colonial European nation and her former colonies complicates intellectual and cultural identity and heritage.   

In his paper “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?,” R. Radhakrishnan, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irivine, asks, “Is knowledge natural or is it a questioning of origins?” Perhaps the latter is what I am trying to do now. Through my birthplace, the birthplace of my parents and ancestors, through languages, a certain kind of culture, I trace an origin to India. Through this language, English, which my parents and grandparents acquired through a British education, which I grew up speaking along with Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati, I trace another origin to the West. Radhakrishnan again: “How could someone be both one and something other? How could the unity of identity have more than one face or name?”

Is it this duality that I am struggling with? The identity crises among the children of post-colonial diaspora are now fairly well-acknowledged but still not well-understood. They are crises that most likely cannot be resolved (because how could one possibly resolve such an issue of identity that is a personal struggle for so many?), but perhaps an acknowledgement of the particular dynamic leading to them is a step towards understanding.

I think back, again, to India’s legacy as a post-colonial nation in the modern world. A part of the liberation of India from the British Empire was supposed to be the liberation of Indian culture (with its variations, multiplicity, and conflicts). Modern trends of globalization have seen a massive migration of people. America, in particular, has had a massive influx of immigrants, mostly from Asia, many from India, a country still reeling from British imposition. I am a product of both these processes—the post-colonial process of nation-building in India, and the migration movements across the globe. What does it mean, then, for me to be from a country that only in the last century won a hard-fought liberation from Western colonial rule, and to end up again in the West? Here I am, very much a part of this Western culture, even identifying with it to a large extent, and yet I have this sense that something is missing. What about the knowledge that was and is being produced by those still consigned to anthropos?

In order to study anything other than the established Western canon in this liberal arts college, I have to turn to area studies departments or classes with titles consisting of many labels, such as 20th Century Women Writers of Color in the Americas, which are necessary in order to differentiate the course material from what would be expected from a class titled simply American Literature. Western colonial cultural hegemony involved not just suppression but also erasure. Through the history of colonialism, which has followed me to the United States by a certain kind of post-colonial educational doctrine, I feel myself cut off from any kind of knowledge that has been and is being produced in India, and so my education seems incomplete. If I accepted the canon, accepted the knowledge of the humanities that is grounded in oppressive histories, I would be accepting the erasure of my heritage—or at least one part of it. This cultural heritage comes with its share of present-day baggage of continued inequality. Perhaps I am finally admitting this inequality and seeking a way to balance the scales, or some kind of retribution.

If it truly exists for the purpose of encouraging modes of thinking other than the accepted one, and to respect a variety of heritages, the liberal arts institution should be a place where the complexities of intellectual and cultural identity can be explored. The plurality and diversity of cultures existing within the United States in particular must impart this burden upon its institutions of higher study. In addition to the very pressing need for colleges and universities to accept candidates from a variety of backgrounds to take steps towards alleviating inequalities, there is also a pressing need to create diversity in the knowledge conferred upon students, especially given the possible diversity in their backgrounds. This diversity of knowledge is far too often relegated to culture-specific knowledge, as “special interest” areas of study. Teaching a class on American literature, for example, without including immigrant women of color, who are very much a part of American culture, not only fails to account for the real diversity of American literature, but also works to erase the historical and cultural experiences of students in that class with that background. Liberal arts institutions in the United States, as part of this Western system of power, have access to the knowledge of the world. Maybe these institutions owe it to their oppressive legacies and the products of these legacies—people such as myself—to acquire and distribute knowledge from other parts of the world, considering this knowledge as equal.

Ultimately, the question is one of identity: how do I identify myself, and how does this self-identification reflect on my cultural knowledge? For the erasure and suppression of knowledge from my country of birth I feel anger, certainly, but also a certain hopelessness. And, of course, I cannot discount myself from being a part of American culture and so must also accept the heritage, intellectual and otherwise, that comes from being a part of this society. What this means for me, then, is not a total rejection of Western knowledge but a reorientation of it for myself as one of many kinds and traditions of knowledge. My liberal arts education is for me the place in which this reorientation occurs. I feel the need to supplement Western knowledge with knowledge from South Asia, but I do not claim to be the voice for anyone who might share my background. Given the incredibly individual nature of identity, this legacy of intellectual oppression as part of the identities of so many must be reconciled by each person herself. There is no definite answer and no clear way forward. In A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid says, “Even if I really came from people who were living like monkeys in trees, it was better to be that than what happened to me, what I became after I met you.” But when there is no longer a before, the only power we have is to choose on what terms the meeting will occur in the now.


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