Publication Date

March 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


  • World

In an increasingly interdependent, multinational, and multicultural world, familiarity with the background, concerns, and problems of societies other than those spawned from the Western tradition has become a present and growing imperative of modern life. Stanford University undergraduates are required to take a year-long Western culture sequence and at least one course on a non-Western culture. This requirement, which was mandated by the Stanford Faculty Senate to take effect in 1980, reintroduced the required “Western culture” after a hiatus of ten years. (In 1986–87, the Faculty Senate revised its Western culture requirement to reflect demographic and intellectual changes by mandating the inclusion of at least one non-European culture and reducing the significance of the “core” reading list. The collective name of the various tracks was changed to CIV—cultures, ideas, and values. These new courses were introduced first in the fall quarter, 1989–90.)

The non-Western culture requirement—one course as opposed to three quarters for Western culture—reflected faculty concern that if nearly all United States students lack an acquaintance with the Western tradition, their knowledge of the world outside the West is even more limited. The rationale behind the non-Western requirement was clear: five-sixths of the world’s population and four-fifths of the world’s sovereign nations are located outside of Europe and those areas of European settlement considered extensions of the West (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). For at least the past forty years, military conflict and economic development in the non-Western world have arguably had a greater impact upon American society than have events taking place in Europe.

Incorporating the non-Western requirement into the existing curriculum presented few difficulties. At Stanford, there are well over 100 humanities and social science faculty specializing in Africa, East Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the non-Western world. Students may satisfy the non-Western requirement by taking any one of about fifty-five designated courses. Most of these courses are designed to introduce students to a particular world area, culture, or society through the perspective of a particular discipline, for example: contemporary African politics, traditional Chinese literature, or the history of colonial Mexico.

In the early 1980s, a group of non-Western area studies faculty proposed a new course sequence, “The World Outside the West.” Where this sequence differed from other non-Western courses was in its interdisciplinary and cross-cultural emphasis. The course was to be taught by a team of area specialists—e.g., anthropologists, historians, and political scientists—and would be aimed primarily at sophomores and juniors desirous of fulfilling the non-Western culture requirements.

Those of us proposing this new course were concerned that an unspecified one-quarter, non-Western culture course would not adequately portray the tremendous cultural and social diversity in the non-Western world, and we were dissatisfied with the “high” cultural emphasis implicit in the teaching of the “Western” culture requirement. We proposed, instead, a comparative study of three non-Western cultures over a two-quarter sequence, focusing on a broader definition of “culture.” In this course, “culture” was conceived as lived experience, thus emphasizing social history. Since there were no ready-made models for such a course, we spent considerable time exploring alternative ways of conceptualizing and organizing the material we hoped to include in the course and in developing a model of culture which could be used as part of a debate with the proponents of Western “culture” as commonly conceived. We found Fernand Braudel’s division of time into natural, social, and eventful time, as developed in his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World of Philip II, provocative and helpful in shaping the agenda for organizing course materials.

As our thinking evolved, the course came to concentrate on aspects of selected cultures in Asia (China), Africa (Nigeria), and the Americas (Mexico), and was to have a threefold objective: introduce students to a select number of non-Western cultures before and after extensive contact with the West; help students better understand the values, attitudes, and institutions of non-Western peoples in the modern world; and, furnish students with a framework for comparing and contrasting all cultures, including that of the West, thereby heightening students’ sensitivity and appreciation of the varieties of human experience.

Students would not be the only beneficiaries of the course. The process of course development would present opportunities for enhanced dialogue among faculty who specialize in the study of non-Western societies. We expected this dialogue to encourage greater sensitivity to the comparative dimension in courses taught in our own fields of specialization and to generate insights into further innovation in the curriculum in regard to introductory courses in specific non-Western areas.

Teaching “The World Outside the West” began in the autumn of 1984-85 with funding from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. From the outset, the faculty team, comprised of two anthropologists, three historians, and a political scientist, had to confront and resolve two critical intellectual problems. One was to see how the various parts of each of the cultures with which they dealt could be presented in such a fashion as to render these parts into an interrelated, coherent, and apprehensible whole. The second problem was to shape the issues of the course—for the peoples of China, Nigeria, and Mexico—into a common and shared discourse. Tackling the first problem required development of intra-cultural understanding; handling the second necessitated trans-cultural comparison.

The faculty involved were convinced that the best way to confront the basic epistemological difficulties of the course was to present an overall and unifying analytic framework which stressed how men and women in different cultural areas responded to common problems relating to human efforts to control both nature and cosmic forces, and how these efforts shaped the society, economy, and polity. Particularly in the first quarter, where these three cultures are studied prior to sustained contact with the “West,” we wanted to portray these cultures as dynamic and changing, in order to avoid the stereotype of the “changeless” non-Western world. We paid special attention to the social, economic, political, and intellectual feedback between natural time and social time. Although we began with detailed discussions of physical and human geography, we spent considerable time examining the indigenous world view—the bodies of philosophical, social, and religious thought—in each of the three cultures. The course came to be structured around an examination of what, explicitly, these indigenous bodies of thought express and how they are linked to social, economic, and political organization and change.

The professors’ pedagogic goals were to analyze, mediate, and compare these bodies of thought, and to specify how peoples use these bodies of thought to inform, shape, and construct their various cultures. Central to our comparative approach was that these very different cultures were alternative responses to problems all human societies seek to resolve.

This comparative concept—different responses to common problems—helped organize the syllabus, lectures, and reading assignments. The goal here was to get students to appreciate that the great diversity of human cultures reflects the enormous creativity of human beings in their responses to problems and opportunities. We expected that students would come to see that the Western tradition is just one possibility among many. As a result, students would come to adopt a more detached perspective on their own culture.

While none of the faculty agreed on a common definition of culture, there was general concurrence that culture should include the schemes of perception, conception, and social action shared by members of a society in their quest to relate to each other and to make sense out of the universe in which they live. The concept of culture emphasized in the course would include the “Great Traditions” of art, literature, religion, and philosophy, dealing with these not as eternal and immutable verities, but as part of the every day structures of life—including birth, rites of passage, marriage, and death. The course depicted culture as a fluid phenomenon, and solidly rejected the assumption usually made in connection with non-Western societies, that their cultures, once established, remain essentially unchanged thereafter.

Teachers presented both exogenous and endogenous views of the societies being studied in the course. Ethnographies, travelers’ accounts, and similar documents imparted a sense of how these societies were viewed by outsiders, while views produced within the cultures themselves, entrenched, for example, in written or oral traditions, imparted a sense of how members of the societies perceived themselves. Faculty considered this emphasis on a dual perspective one of the main tasks of the course, for it would encourage students in the idea that any society can be regarded from a number of viewpoints and that social truth is relative. Regarding non-Western societies only in terms of Western concepts discourages appreciation of many of the cultural nuances essential to those societies and blinds one to their dynamism and creativity.

The faculty believed it imperative to stress in their teaching the immense variety of non-Western societies and cultural traditions. They wanted to sensitize students to the distortions of complex social realities which arise with the use of terms like “non-Western world” or “Third World,” which are residual categories indicating not what various cultures are, but what they are not. Such terms not only suggest an unfounded degree of homogeneity in the world outside the West, they have also come to imply backwardness, poverty, and inscrutability. Placing emphasis on the heterogeneity of the non-Western world would indicate the falsification involved in indiscriminate use of such all-encompassing terms like “Third World” and would suggest further why the responses of non-Western peoples to Western intrusion have varied enormously from place to place.

“The World Outside the West” is a two-quarter sequence. The initial segment of the course deals with the societies of China, Mexico, and Nigeria before their enduring contact with an aggressive and interventionist West. The instructors’ main objective during the opening quarter is to challenge stereotypical notions of presumably dormant and stagnant non-Western societies which became dynamic only after being energized through contact with the West. The lessons of this part of the course sequence are that many non-Western societies have traditions as complex, and in some cases lengthier, than those of the West and that there are no societies without their own sense of time.

For the instructors involved in the presentation of Chinese society and culture before extensive contact with the West, teaching focuses on some of the major elements which characterized the Chinese outlook, illustrating the ways in which a widely shared, specifically Chinese world view was manifested in social, economic, and political arenas. Elements stressed include: the absence of a creation myth—that while the emergence of civilized, humane society may need explaining, the world itself simply is and cosmogony is not a serious issue; the view that the cosmos, the human/social realm, and the ordinary world around the Chinese are part of one holistic entity; the closely-related idea that this differentiated and hierarchical whole functions organically, so that conditions on one realm affect what happens in that of another; the emphasis in Chinese thought upon eclecticism, complementarity, and harmony rather than upon exclusivity, contradiction, and struggle; the predilection among Chinese not to divide what one thinks or knows from what one does—knowledge and action are but two sides of the same coin; and, the absence of a self-conscious science, which did not prevent the Chinese from developing a rich tradition of scientific and technological discovery.

Religion receives great emphasis in the examination of the central Mexican Aztec civilization. Teaching centers on the ways in which all aspects of what have been traditionally considered the religious aspects of culture—cosmology, pantheon, priesthood, ritualism, sacrifice, symbolism, sacred sites, architecture, pilgrimages, mythology, divination, magic, and theological and philosophical speculation—were elaborately developed and closely integrated with social and political organization, ethics, art aesthetics, literacy, and daily life. Partly through original documents, students are introduced to the central Mexican world view: they read Aztec philosophical poetry and confront the rudiments of the complicated and sophisticated Aztec calendar. The intimate interweaving of religion with daily life is important for understanding the Spanish conquest of Mexico, for the Aztecs regarded Cortes as a fulfillment of a prophecy which foretold the end of a political-cosmological cycle. Thus, the Aztec defeat cannot be comprehended without reference to Aztec religion and the interaction between Aztec and Spanish world views.

In regard to Nigeria, with the exception of the Islamic tradition to the north, the relatively small scale of most Nigerian societies hindered the development of a professional “intellectual” class. Lacking literacy, precolonial Nigerians did not bequeath to posterity a written corpus of philosophical traditions. The smallness of scale of many of the societies of Nigeria contributed to an intimacy of belief, analysis, and practice. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate religious thought from ethical behavior, philosophical traditions from political ideas. The Nigerians’ complex cosmology, for example, demonstrates their understanding of causality and consequence. Problems of human survival demand a careful and continuous accounting to the spiritual world and the maintenance of balance within it. Examination of the Nigerian life cycle explores the closeness of the past, present, and future in the consciousness of Nigerians and in their religious thought. Throughout the Nigerian segment of the opening quarter, instruction hinges upon this critical sense of intimacy between thought and lived experience.

The second quarter of the course concentrates on the interaction of the three non-Western cultures/societies with the aggressive, curious, expansionist, and interventionist West. In keeping with the religious, philosophical, and cosmological themes of the opening quarter of the sequence, attention is directed toward the response of Christian Europeans (especially missionaries) to the religious ideas and values of the three societies and the responses of the peoples in these societies to the cosmology and ethical norms of the Christians in their midst. The course also addresses questions of how a society like China, with varying degrees of success, maintained its political independence in the face of Western pressure while at the same time it attempted to create new cultural syntheses between Western civilization and its own heritage. In its examination of the range of non-Western reactions to the West, the course reiterates its emphasis on the vast heterogeneity of the world outside the West. Discussion of the reactions of non-Western peoples to the West also reveals their deep ambivalence toward the West, an ambivalence which is one of the inescapable yet most important facts about the contemporary world.

The China portion of the second quarter addresses the issue of how Chinese social and religious thinking did or did not change in response to the intrusion of new modes and models of thought from the West. Lectures and readings cover the missionary movement in China and Chinese reaction to it, the confrontation of traditional ethical systems with rationalistic Western social theories, and the transformation of Marxism into a Maoist synthesis. In general, although the Chinese intelligentsia were exposed to Christianity, they found its message inadequate. They were more accepting of a wide variety of Western secular philosophies, materialist or positivist in character, ranging from Social Darwinism to Marxism-Leninism. Why there was a general embracing of Western secular thought forms one of the principal questions of the second quarter Chinese section. In seeking to find answers to this question, efforts are made to sensitize students to what is universal and what is parochial in Western thought.

The beginning of the second quarter Mexico segment discusses the conquest and colonization of Mexico in terms of the philosophical debates about human nature that the New World inspired in Spanish conquistadores and missionaries. The main subject of debate was whether, and if so to what degree, the indigenous peoples of the New World were fully human, having intellectual capabilities of a level sufficient enough for them to become completely Christian. The enslavers and exploiters argued that Indians, although descendants of Adam and Eve, had devolved to such an extent that they were in essence beasts. Protectors of the Indians argued that they were just like Adam and Eve immediately after expulsion from Paradise and that therefore Indians were ready for full-scale evangelization. From discussions of debates and policies in regard to the Indians, the segment concludes with an examination of the politics, policies, and challenges facing the various Mexican governments during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Second quarter lectures and readings on the peoples of Nigeria concentrate on the quite different responses to Christianity among the followers of Islam and those adhering to “animist” beliefs. The argument presented in the segment is that the many similarities between Islam and Christianity, coupled with the long history of conflict between the two world religions, enabled Muslims to successfully resist the proselytizing efforts of Christian missionaries. The intense linkage of localized animist beliefs with the maintenance of a local small-scale political order, however, created special opportunities for Christian missionary efforts, particularly on the heels of European military conquest. The effects on small-scale Nigerian societies of the confrontation between Christianity and animism are graphically portrayed in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Although rejection or acceptance of Christianity were the most potent alternatives available to Nigerians in their encounter with this aspect of Western intrusion, they were not the only ones. The segment examines instances of syncretic responses to Christianity, such as the Cherubim and Seraphim movement and the efforts of Nigerians to establish an independent Nigerian Christian Church. Studying these syncretic movements accentuates the creativity and dynamism of Nigerian societies in their reactions to the West.

“The World Outside the West” sequence was much neater and tidier on paper than it actually was in the classroom. China, Mexico, and Nigeria were very different cultures, with considerably different historiographical traditions. Moreover, neither Mexico nor Nigeria were recognized precolonial entities. This required that we redefine the units of study: for the first quarter, Mexico was essentially the valley of Mexico; for Nigeria, we had to balance two quite different narratives, one for the northern Muslim Hausa and the other for the acephalous Igbo of the southeast. While the teachers of China and Mexico presented more unitary views of their respective cultures and societies, teachers of Nigeria tried to present the range of diversity in what was to become Nigeria. The Hausa and the Igbo were chosen because they were the principal players in the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s.

Part of the problem for both teachers and students was the unevenness in the presentations of these regions and in the quality of the literature available. Much more and much better introductory material was available for China and Mexico than for Nigeria. However, the novels and other readings (including Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and the wonderful autobiography of a Hausa woman, Baba of Karo) more than favored the Nigerian side. The course therefore avoided the problems of “equivalences” by acknowledging to students the very different historiographical traditions in the three regions. But other forms of “equivalences” continued to plague the course.

Chronology was one such problem. Events occurred at very different times in each of these areas, as did the point of sustained contact with the West, which was to serve as the transition from the first to the second quarter. Although somewhat awkward for students, we agreed on what we call “conceptual” time, in which comparable events occurred. Thus, the establishment of the Aztec state could be compared to the Ming/Ch’ing transition in China, which was parallel to the consolidation of power by Muslim rulers in Hausaland. Similarly, the transition from the first to the second quarter also followed “conceptual” time, wherein the Spanish conquest of Mexico could be compared to the treaty port system in China and to the British abolition of the slave trade and the beginning of colonial conquest in Nigeria.

The most intractable problem we have faced in five years of teaching “The World Outside the West” has been that of recruiting faculty. This course is extremely labor intensive, involving three faculty for each of two quarters. Thus, finding two faculty for each of the three areas covered—or finding one prepared to teach both quarters—has been a daunting task. Central to the conceptualization of the course, however, was our expectation that the areas included would change over time, but that we would always try to have three different cultures. For the first two years, we included China, Mexico, and Nigeria. The next year, we switched from Mexico to Peru, but retained China and Nigeria. Given faculty leave patterns, we then returned to the original grouping, only to plan for another change for 1989–90 (i.e., Egypt, Japan, and Nigeria as the three cultures “outside the West”).

Despite the administrative burdens of long-range planning and the substitution of new areas, these changes have kept the course material fresh. We have to rethink the issues each time we teach, and in the process, we also come a little closer to understanding better the diversity of cultures throughout the world and how to teach about them.

“The World Outside the West” is not designed to be a “world history” course. It is designed to expose students to ranges of diversity in three deeply studied parts of the world and to challenge them to think critically about these areas in relationship to one another and in relationship to the West. The course has a reputation among students as being extremely demanding, but also quite rewarding.

James Lance, who is completing his dissertation in African history, was a teaching fellow in this course. The Teaching Fellows Program was designed to expose advanced graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to the content of this course in order to help them develop similar courses when they begin their professional career. Richard Roberts is associate professor of African history and has participated in the course since its inception. This paper was originally presented as part of a panel on "Teaching World History" held at the 1989 American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch meeting, Portland, Oregon.