For a while, I have been meditating on the necessity for academic colonial ‘classics’ to be centered within social science curricula. I am an anthropology major, and so I have debated with my professors over this particular issue numerous times. Institutionally, the discipline of anthropology has prioritized and financed white cisgender (cis) male scholarship, whereas it has structurally excluded people of color, non-men, and LGBTQIA+ people. This is a real problem, of course. Institutions in ‘post-colonial’ countries tend to be oppressive due to the hierarchies that are built into their very structures.
However, while my anthropology professors tend to acknowledge this and put effort into interrogating the institutional history of the discipline, I still feel that they, and professors who teach in other departments, need to address this problem more impactfully. My argument is that professors should stop merely acknowledging the ‘oppressive roots’ of social science disciplines, while continuing to teach what the discipline has unspokenly accepted as its classics. Instead, they need to critique the continued reverence of classics as classics, and decolonize their curricula.
Since this discussion might make the most sense to those who are immediately invested in it, I will provide an example for those who aren’t. Clifford Geertz is an American anthropologist and a white cis man. His most widely read article is called “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” It describes, as you might expect, a cockfight that he observed while he was doing fieldwork in Bali. Now, Geertz wasn’t the type of guy to think that there is a code to understanding culture, and that you must crack it to uncover the deeper secrets to humanity–that was Claude Levi-Strauss. Geertz was the type of guy to think that one can use symbols to analyze culture, and that culture is the way that everyone imposes meaning and order onto their lives. He was interested more in meaning and interpretation than in rules and codes.
While this is well and good, Geertz was also someone who almost entirely excluded an analysis of structural power in his works. In his article on the Balinese cockfight, he also built his analysis of the fight on white (and settler colonial) cisgender male conceptions of power. With many other problems in addition to these, Geertz is an example of a scholar who is frequently regarded in the discipline of anthropology as foundational. Interpretive, or symbolic, anthropology is a school of thought commonly traced back to him as its influencer, and one that is also considered fundamental to the study of culture. While it may seem advantageous to include interpretive anthropology and Clifford Geertz in the anthropology curriculum, it also replicates a tendency for the discipline to favor convention and knowledge hierarchies as opposed to marginalized voices.
One of the most convincing counter-arguments that I’ve received to my argument about radically transforming social science curricula is that students need to know the scholarly classics of a field in order for them to be aptly prepared for a possible academic future in said field. So, since I might go to graduate school to get a PhD in anthropology, and there’s a chance I’ll need to know about Geertz for that, my undergraduate professors should be teaching me about his approach to culture. One professor has argued that it is possible to critique these classics while still teaching them, because doing so is most beneficial to the student (who might go on to graduate school).
My perspective, though, is first that most of us are definitely not going to get a PhD in anthropology for which we might need to know these colonial and neo-colonial classics. Second, it’s traumatizing for students who experience the negative consequences of colonization to reinforce that colonial and neo-colonial scholars remain the most intellectually gifted. Third, merely critiquing these scholars does not help to decolonize curricula. Decolonizing curricula would involve imagining the discipline’s future beyond its institutionally problematic history. Anthropology, for example, did not only occur through formal institutional scholarship by white, cis men. Trans people of color and indigenous people around the world “have always done political and theoretical work that centers on dynamics of imperialism, colonialism, and the multiple histories of racialization,” as the Transgender Studies Quarterly issue entitled “Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary” argues more specifically about trans people.
The creation of social science curricula beyond convention is possible, but it requires nothing short of radical transformation.