Thanks to the Global Core requirement and its Barnard and GS equivalents, a Columbia undergraduate will be hard pressed to graduate without encountering the concept of “the West.”
Usually, there will be some attempt to “problematize” the idea. Along with it, we will be asked to “reconsider” what exactly constitutes Western civilization. Having reconsidered, the next step might be to define Western thought or literature or philosophy with a nice three-sentence summary. The upperclassmen of Columbia College, having recently bought and possibly read the books on the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization syllabuses, make a routine habit of bandying about the term “Western civilization” as if the idea is familiar to all and challenged by none.
I find this practice distracting and annoying—the concept of the West is too broad and ill-defined to be of productive use in most class discussions. Too many Columbia students employ the term too loosely, ignoring the complexity of many ideas that often clash uncomfortably.
An Asian humanities seminar, while discussing the Qu’ran, can easily spend two hours coming up with dichotomies dividing concepts familiar to the Islamic tradition with those of the Western tradition: communities and individuals, charity and self-love, faith and secularism.
A different Asian humanities seminar, while discussing the Analects of Confucius, could spend another two hours discussing a different set of binaries: filial piety and the autonomous self, observation of tradition and progress toward a telos, communal agricultural economy and free market capitalism.
I use the example of Asian humanities because I am most familiar with the courses and because my impressions are fresh. Yet I do not think it an overstatement to say that in our attempts to learn about non-Western cultures and question Western thinking, there is a frequent tendency to hastily toss a simplistic, sweeping, and inadequate characterization of the West onto the discussion table. Usually done with a genuine and well-intentioned desire to compare and contrast the Western with the non-Western, what begins as an innocent academic exercise regularly devolves into an indictment of Western civilization’s most cherished values.
While sober and legitimate concerns exist regarding most, if not all, of the Western Core, they are too rarely raised. More often, in my experience, criticism of the West begins by setting up a straw man—usually in the form of a radically individualistic, amoral, material-obsessed, strictly rational, rabidly secular, ends-driven, and progress-seeking capitalist. Bastardized and unfairly depicted, the Western mentality is often caricatured as some combination of Plato, Smith, and Kant, but rarely in their complex and full, true form. Moreover, in the wake of the recent history of Euro-American colonialism, the West is then represented as a malicious predator, a Frankensteinian brainchild of dead, white men that preys on the misfortunes of anyone who dares to challenge Europe and North America’s manly hegemony.
I am being deliberately hyperbolic, but my hyperbole contains more than a sliver of truth. Even if the West is not purposefully set up as a straw man, the term is too vague to spawn a meaningful response and fruitful discussion. A Platonist sees metaphysics differently from an Aristotelian. A Christian view of morality is at direct odds with a Machiavellian one. Kant and Hume can both be considered to have written secular philosophy, but they are otherwise dissimilar.
I don’t mean to draw up these examples as binaries, but simply to point out that two or more ideas can be simultaneously Western and contradict each other. Sitting at a classroom discussion, I would not know where to begin if something is merely labelled as Western.
You would think that with the Core Curriculum, Columbia students would understand the West with a greater degree of complexity. Yet it seems that dismissing the West is almost in vogue. I find it frustrating when the unscrupulous—irresponsibly citing ideas loosely associated with multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism or post-colonialism—reject the validity of Western thought after cursory analysis.
Western thought is not above criticism. However, we would all benefit by avoiding lazy criticism and engaging the West with a level of specificity and only in its best articulation.
Thanks to the career of Edward Said, we know better than to caricature the Orient. In the hallways of Columbia, however, we are perhaps in more danger of becoming practitioners of Occidentalism rather than Orientalism.
Lanbo Zhang is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics and history. He is a former Spectator editorial page editor. Second Impressions runs alternate Thursdays.
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