On Drawing from Diverse Sources

NOTE: A number of the following links are taken from Wikipedia, for ease of access. Citing books would be detrimental to the reader who wishes to get the general gist of the ideas linked.

I like to run a little experiment on the first day of class. I ask my students to name famous historical figures in sciences or humanities, and I write them on the board. Outside an occasional mention of Marie Curie or George Washington Carver, all the names on the list share a few common traits: white, Western/European, atheist/nominally religious. While the importance of these contributors should not be undermined in any way, the very exclusive focus on one contextual background leaves us blind to a very large and valuable realm of ideas produced outside of this narrow setting.

The good news is that the Western-centric focus and education makes a lot of sense: we are, after all, a Western nation, with a distinct cultural and historical heritage. To argue for an educational model that is not, in some ways, Western-centric is rather silly, and is not my aim. Every culture must focus on its own cultural heritage, its own heroes, its own history – or the culture will ultimately be lost. Being forced to focus primarily on the culture of some “other” group is commonly taken to be a form of mental/cultural colonialism and imperialism.

However, if we consider human history, we find that roughly the last 6,000 years contain recorded and generally verifiable human history – across the globe. During this period, innumerable civilizations rose and fell; innumerable ideas were born and died – some managing to survive to the present; innumerable ideas were tried, and the successes and failures recorded in some form. Just as it seems silly to discard one’s own cultural heritage, it seems silly to ignore our human heritage and focus only on the fairly uniform cultural history of about 4.5% of Earth’s landmass (US and Europe), over the time-span of about 6% of recorded history (roughly the last 350 years). Not only do we miss the vast majority of human efforts and experience, we also generally miss the context that allowed the development of the period we do focus on – making it seem as if our ideas sprang from thin air.

What is lost in the exclusivity of Western-centrism is an incredible amount of accumulated human knowledge and experience. Not only is this knowledge useful and valuable on its own, it also carries some amazing implications. In India, we have the development of two marvels of metallurgy: The Iron Pillar of Delhi and production of Damascus Steel – feats we are only now starting to grasp, though we remain entirely in the dark as to how such feats were accomplished without current technology. In the Islamic empires, there is the development of earthquake-resistant architecture, and the earliest postulation of Evolution. China was the first to introduce a meritocratic government, and standardized testing for government positions as a political tool. The list goes on and on.

Even if we believed that the non-Western contributions do not offer applicable ideas to modernity, they would still offer a great deal of value by their failure. That is, they would provide a vast amount of data on the failure of ideas, by trial and error. Thus, even if they have never produced anything of value (a rather far-fetched notion), their failures are themselves a useful tool for discovering the problems and pitfalls of various ideas, and are thus a learning experience on what we should avoid.

Part of the rejection of non-Western thinkers is premised on their strange contexts that are very different than our own. What can we learn from 1000-year old religious people, who thought the Earth was the center of the universe, and that medicine was based on balancing the four humors in the body, or balancing the positive and negative energies inside the body? Apparently, a lot. Ibn Sina’s (d. 1037) medical uses of Saffron are currently being used by the pharma industry to find chemotherapy alternatives. Chinese use of black bear bile – commonly taken as a point of ridicule by Western medicine – is superb at treating a number of illnesses.

More to the point, our modern worldview and context is just as far removed from most of our classical Western sources as it is from the “exotic” non-Western ones. Greek philosophers promoted natural slavery, pedophilia, and constantly referenced capricious super powerful beings as the source of human events. The Romans were big into slavery, believed in bad air as the cause of illness, and built temples to their gods all over. Medieval Europe took on all sorts of attitudes that would be considered decidedly non-Western by today’s standards, including superstition as medicine, flogging as a viable psychological approach, etc. Even a great number of thinkers that form part of the Western “modernity” are incompatible with both modernity and our perception of who they were and what they did. Case in point, John Locke – the father of Western political thought – claimed that atheists should be ineligible to hold public office, and quoted the Bible liberally throughout his political writings. Newton wrote more on theology than he ever did on physics and mathematics – not to mention that he was a serious advocate for numerology, astrology, and magical alchemy.

The point is not that our general Western-centric focus is wrong; only that the exclusivity to the point of blindness and ignorance of other contributing regions, nations, and peoples is detrimental to our own progress.

If, instead of focusing on the origin of ideas, we focus on their potential value, there is no question that we would readily draw from diverse sources. The only obstacle is the fact that we need to be at least conversant in the diverse contexts of these ideas to functionally employ them. Case in point, the Chinese term e is translated as evil – but has no relation whatsoever with the absolutist Christian concept of evil we use in the West. Instead, its meaning is closer to the idea of “sub-optimal decisions, based on the realities of the operational context.” Thus, to the Chinese, a burned dinner is “evil,” because the ingredients for a nutritious meal were present, but a series of bad decisions resulted in inedible goop. Without understanding that context, drawing on Chinese ideas is more likely than not to result in an incorrect interpretation, followed by an incorrect application of ideas.

While we cannot become experts on all contexts and possible benefits, we should at least remain open to the possibility of drawing on them, when the suggestion is made – perhaps by reliance on expert interpretation – in order to improve our own ideas. In this way, we stand to gain much from the vast treasure of the work of others, but need not sacrifice our commitment to our own history and culture.

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