Core I: Western Values and Western Sameness


As a first-year up to my neck in Core I readings, I wasn’t a huge fan of the curriculum. But reflecting as a sophomore, I am still dissatisfied with my experience. While my particular Core I section did not include any moments of outright racism, as was in the case of a few sections this year, I would argue that the very basis of Core I contains some inherent misrepresentations and a general degree of ethnocentrism.

Let’s start with the title: “Histories of the Present.” Already, we have a vague and rather redundant terminology on our hands. As a second-semester professor of mine pointed out last year (when our class was discussing our generally negative Core I experiences), history is “of the present.” You may as well just call the curriculum “History” and avoid the repetition. What’s that you say? Core I isn’t merely a history course? Then let me try to figure out what it is.

On the Scripps website, it is eloquently argued that “Core I, ‘Histories of the Present: Human Nature and Human Difference,’ takes up this task [of highlighting categories or values we take to be given or obvious] through an examination of how it is that competing views of human nature and human difference underlie various modes of thought and action.” This description, when examined alongside this year’s Core I reading list, is at best lofty and at worst extremely misleading; “human” implies a cross-cultural, global experience, while the Core I readings are limited to decidedly Western authors who generally fo- cus on humanity in the United States or Europe (with the exception of Nussbaum, a Western author writing about Indian women in her human capabilities approach theory). Here we have a prime example of ethnocentrism, or evaluating other’s cultures on the basis of one’s own cultural standards. Isn’t this the very thing Core I is claims to try to eradicate?

I have no problem with this year’s reading list. But I do have a problem with slanting it to lay claim to a much broader focus than it actually has. A first step in addressing the ethnocentrism of Core I would be simply renaming it. Plenty of alternatives would, in my opinion, much more accurately describe the scope of this intellectual project. “Core I: Human Nature in Western Civilization” or “Core I: Humanity in the Western Canon” are viable options. And if this idea irks the Core faculty, than perhaps another reassessment of the program’s priorities and change in curriculum is in order.

Plenty of other colleges have required freshman seminars in Western Civilization. I believe that Scripps is one of them—we just call it something else.