Identity, Life

Why are we so afraid of cultural diversity?

I would know, because my high school education was pretty embarrassingly Eurocentric.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s hard to teach about cultural diversity unless people want to learn. This seems a strange observation to make as a student, but it is something that I’ve learned slowly over the years from my own experiences.

There’s a tendency in history and literature to be Eurocentric. Much more time and effort and scholarly thought has been devoted to white, straight male writers or thinkers or artists that to any others. It goes hand in hand, in many places, with colonialism, and the imposition of those writers or artists or thinkers on students, because they were considered the classics.

However there was also not much more that was required of me. Click To Tweet

And it’s still relevant today. I would know, because my high school education was pretty embarrassingly Eurocentric. While there were some classes that taught about non-European subject matter it was easy to avoid them either intentionally or unintentionally. My required 8th grade history class touched on several non-European schools of thought. After that I found it far too easy to take only European history and US history in high school. To a certain degree I took the courses that I wanted because I wanted AP credits, an AP World History class wasn’t offered at my high school. But still my only exposure to the history of Africa or Asia or South America during high school came from studying Europe or the US as imperial forces in those areas.

I did do slightly better in the area of literature. I took a World Lit class my junior year of high school, which I very much enjoyed. But one semester-long class didn’t really expose me to all that much cultural diversity. It was disturbingly easy to get through high school knowing very little about the world outside of Europe and America.

It was disturbingly easy to get through high school knowing very little about the world outside of Europe and America. Click To Tweet

My out-of-school exposure to culture was also skewed. When I eventually tired of physical gifts for birthdays and Christmas, I started asking for tickets to concerts and performances. My parents were all too happy to oblige, and I am grateful that I got to see several different amazing shows and concerts because of this. But again, the cultural events that we saw were predominantly European and Amercan: the ballet, orchestra concerts, or Broadway shows.

My out-of-school exposure to culture was also skewed. Click To Tweet

In college it became much easier to take diverse classes, and I was excited at the increased options that were now available to me. However there was also not much more that was required of me. My school’s multicultural requirement dictates that students should take one class about a non-white culture (non-European or American), a minority group in America, or the effects of racism on some social group. I fulfilled it easily without meaning to in my first year by taking a Spanish class that focused on Latin America. But there, again, I felt like I learned a lot about the European conquest of that area, and the loss of native culture, rather than what their culture had actually been.

I eventually ended up taking another class in my junior year on the history of Islam that exposed me to the foundations of one of the major non-western religions. But I will openly admit that I still know far too little about the history and culture of countries within Africa and Asia. That’s a huge issue on my end.

And in part, the responsibility is personal. Click To Tweet

I study at a liberal arts school, so one would hope that the same instincts that would lead students to a diverse liberal arts college would lead them to study other cultures. And in part, the responsibility is personal (and I need to examine my own responsibility more). But in part it is too much to leave it up to “hope.” High schools need to start offering more courses on non-European culture, and colleges and universities that already offer such courses need to think more about whether they need to require more of their students.

High schools should offer more courses on non-European culture, and colleges and universities should change multicultural requirements. Click To Tweet

Studying another culture can be a bit scary. It can make you think in new ways, and question the actions or beliefs of your own cultural system. But with a combination of incentives from schools to take these courses, and individual efforts we can build a world that’s more multicultural and understanding.

Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger is currently pursuing a BA at Wellesley College where she studies English and Spanish. One of her (too many) goals this summer is to make the list of musicals she wants to listen to shorter.

Our weekly email will change your life.