On the way to a conference last week, I was faced with a more or less challenging situation: an intense dialogue among a few colleagues about the significance of different cultures in world history and development. This is a complex topic and it’s hard to make simple conclusions on the matter. I want to write about this experience though, not because I am after advertising or defending a particular nation or want to offend others. This is simply my way of alleviating pain after hearing highly ignorant and uneducated remarks by supposedly educated individuals in the United States.
I was faced with the question of “who contributed the most to our history” or “whose work we should look for when studying the history of art, philosophy, poetry, architecture, literature, and so on.”
I have often noticed that Europe stands out in the American version of history in many different fields. For example, I happened to take introductory courses to political philosophy and architecture history at Cornell University as an undergraduate student. I can confidently say that the majority of topics covered were related to Rome and Greece and some times Great Britain. I, like many other students, left our class thinking that these concepts were first introduced by these nations only and others were mostly followers. Plato’s Republic was introduced to us as a book that marked the beginning of philosophy and political dialogue and such ideas seemed to begin in a society where thinking and logic were encouraged for the first time. Democracy was shown to be the most mesmerizing concept in a world of chaos. We were introduced to every famous architectural piece in Europe and briefly reviewed a few others (i.e. Ancient Egypt, Japan, and India) in the last couple weeks of the class. Even specialized courses tend to be biased and negative towards eastern nations, following the language used in ancient Greek historical records.
I was faced with the same dilemma in the car last week.
Cyrus’ Cylinder: Considered as History’s First Declaration of Human Rights
in Ancient Times is today displayed at the British Museum.
©British Museum, London
With my little knowledge of history, I believe that there were many extremely knowledgeable and progressive societies before and after Europe began to develop its culture. Why is this question one of substantial importance? Why do many of us who specifically come from Iran, China, or other problematic nations demonized by western media have to face personal attacks aimed to ignore and/or under-score our history, culture, and contributions to the world? There seems to be a huge gap in real world history and what has been advertised by Europeans after colonialism. I am interested to know the details of how this happened, but I speculate that most Americans follow the Euro-centric historic records that understandably tend to underscore the reality and fail to credit and therefore learn from different nations and their contributions. An architect who does not learn about ancient Chinese philosophy and art, or does not know what Persepolis (Takht-e-Jamshid) is, can be at a disadvantage compared to an architect who has been introduced to a wider variety of styles and ways of thought.
Why do we teach biased history in our schools in America? Is it because the founders of this country came from western Europe? Is it because the United States was once a British Colony and hence subject to a brain washed record of history? Does the past justify denying ourselves and our children a picture that shows the reality, as opposed to making a Euro-centric view of the globe? Why don’t we want to learn about the real Middle East or East Asia or other places in conjunction with Europe? Is this view acceptable in this century of knowledge in a country that was itself a victim of unjust colonialism, a county who owes its progress to its vast range of immigrants and their diversity of thought, a country whose founding fathers were open minded enough to take advantage of Cyropedia and the organization of the Persian Empire 2500 years ago in addition to the European politics. Isn’t this the core of the current conflict between the east and west? The “west” seems to fail to appreciate what the “east” has to offer or fails to credit the eastern cultures for their vast contributions in every field?
Propaganda for demonizing the “east” and its history seems to be a repeated pattern after the Persian/Greek wars in which a few Greek historians described the Persians as barbarians (surprisingly shown the same way in recent popular western animations and movies). In recent times, propaganda has been a useful (or perhaps destructive) tool during the cold war as well as the current conflict between the Christian nations and the Muslim world. It seems to me that it is necessary to force the decision makers to improve the education of the next generation in this country. Biased history will not only further separate us all, but will cause unnecessary hatred and conflicts. I’m curious to hear your experiences with prejudice wherever you are or your thoughts on the topic.