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Widen scope of non-western perspective

WHENEVER race issues at the University reenter the spotlight, many of the same issues get thrown around. The Greek system, the myths and realities of "self-segregation," the philosophy behind various ethnic student organizations and the racial composition of the faculty and the Board of Visitors are just a few of the hot topics that have been debated for years. And, despite any progress in these areas, the fact these issues continuously reemerge proves very little has changed.

Maybe instead of focusing on extremely complex ideas, it is time to shift the dialogue to more concrete problems. One such problem is the College's non-western perspectives requirement. The current requirement represents one subtle way racial insensitivity still exists at the University. This requirement needs to be redefined or experience a name change to "diverse perspectives."

Students in the College must complete coursework in five area requirements, in addition to the writing and foreign language competency requirements. The area requirements are divided into 12 credits in natural sciences and mathematics, six credits in social sciences, six credits in humanities, three credits in historical studies and three credits in non-western perspectives.

According to the Undergraduate Record, the non-western perspectives component, "broadens students' exposure to other cultures and to the ways those cultures perceive their environment or organize their society." This fits in nicely with the College's liberal arts philosophy, geared toward exposing students to a wide range of subjects to prepare them to enter an increasingly global society. These mission statements are necessary, realistic and admirable.

The problem, however, rests in how the term "non-western" is defined. Again, according to the Undergraduate Record, a non-western perspectives course is a class "from any department among those recognized by the [Committee on Educational Policy and the Curriculum] as dealing substantively with a culture other than the Western cultural heritage, including minority sub-cultures in the West." Although the definition mentions "minority subcultures in the West," this part of the definition does not seem appropriate to the term "non-western." It is as if to imply that sub-cultures outside of the dominant western cultures are not "western" at all.

The difficulty of deciding what courses should and should not fulfill the non-western requirement was recognized at a College faculty meeting in Nov. 1992. At the meeting, the three-credit non-western studies requirement was added to the general education curriculum for the 1993-94 academic year. The proposal, however, was not cut and dry. "Whether courses on minority sub-cultures in the West would qualify continued to be debated at the meeting, because the steering committee decided to exclude subjects with ties to European cultures, such as Hispanic and Latin American studies, but courses in Afro-American and African studies would count" ("Arts & Sciences Faculty Approve Area Requirements Changes," InsideUVA, Nov. 20, 1992).

As it stands now, the requirement includes classes such as African-American Literature, Afro-American Culture, Native American Literature and History of Jazz. It excludes classes such as Asian-American Fiction. The choices regarding what is included and excluded increasingly blurs the line between notions of "western" and "non-western" culture.

A class like History of Jazz within the music department focuses on a musical movement with significant roots in the African-American community. The African-American community is one segment of the broader American population. To say the history of jazz is a non-western study is like saying black people in America, many of whom have roots in this country older than those of many whites, are not western.

The concept of area requirements is not bad in itself. In fact, area requirements represent a diverse selection of classes, some of which can be fulfilled through Advanced Placement credit. Expecting students to take at least one course highlighting some aspect of another culture also is a good idea. Calling minority sub-cultures in the West "non-western," though, inadvertently creates more divisions within our collective culture. Such wording makes it sound as if sub-cultures exist wholly separate from the rest of society.

Language is a powerful tool. Depending on how it is used, it can bring people together or further drive people apart. Subtle differences in word choice can send strong messages. The College faculty should reconsider the title "non-western perspectives." Changing the name to "diverse perspectives" would better describe the courses included under the current "non-western" definition, and possibly open the way for a broader range of classes to be added to the category. Most importantly, the name change would demonstrate that the University is not trying to define who, in fact, is "western."

(Stephanie Batten's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at sbatten@cavalierdaily.com.)

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