Just Call AAL Other

By Guest Contributor

A recent student initiative suggests that Middlebury’s system of academic requirements is in need of reform. Specifically, the authors of the proposal, Daniela Barajas ’14.5 and Rana Abdelhamid ’15, criticize the AAL requirement for failing to embody the College’s commitment to expose students to a variety of the worlds’ cultures and civilizations. Their proposal is rapidly gaining traction: it is the most successful initiative in the history of the We The Middkids online platform, and last week it gained an endorsement from SGA President Rachel Lidell.

The proposal is right to point out the oddity of lumping Africa, Asia, and Latin America together. This label cannot be explained in terms of geography or culturally affinity. The existence of AAL is only explainable as a transparent and inelegant attempt to avoid calling a spade a spade – that is to say, to avoid using the label OTH (“other”), AAL’s predecessor prior to 2003.

The proposed initiative would keep the NOR (North America) requirement, but eliminate AAL and instead require students to chose two regions from the following five: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Europe. On the surface, it seems inherently logical to disaggregate the AAL region into its constituent regions, as well as to recognize the Middle East as a distinct region.

But this suggestion masks a sea change in the distribution requirements: EUR (Europe) would no longer be required. Students could graduate without ever having taken a class covering the cultural and civilizational heritage of Europe – the Western heritage that is the fount of Middlebury College.

The authors of the proposal concede that the NOR requirement should remain in place, out of deference to Middlebury’s geographic location. But Middlebury’s position cannot simply be defined by physical geography. Middlebury is physically located in North America, but it is a Western educational institution, and as such it cannot be viewed as separate from the European tradition. Middlebury’s structure as an institute of higher learning dates back to the European Middle Ages; its values harken from the European Enlightenment. The fact that Western civilizations are especially emphasized at Middlebury is wholly appropriate, and should remain so.

This initiative suggests that the college errs somehow by emphasizing the study of Western cultures and civilizations. By privileging the study of North America and Europe over the rest of the world, they argue that it demeans non-Western thought. But the existing set of requirements does not somehow “minimize” the importance of non-Western culture and civilization. Any student worthy of admission to Middlebury can recognize that non-Western thought is neither uniform nor somehow less important.

But a four-year education is limited in scope, and cannot possibly encompass the study of the entire world. Choices have to be made, and, given the cultural roots of Middlebury itself, it is reasonable that Middlebury students should expect their education to uniquely emphasize the Western tradition. One would hardly think it fair to criticize al-Azhar in Cairo for paying disproportionate attention to the Arab cultural heritage, or Peking University for focusing on the achievements of Chinese civilization.

I commend Ms. Barajas and Ms. Abdelhamid for their work. Many students have undoubtedly pondered Middlebury’s graduation requirements and speculated on how to improve them, but they have created a logical, well-reasoned, and cogent proposal and have unsurprisingly gathered significant support. But while they are right to urge the scrapping of the AAL requirement, I believe their proposed solution would move Middlebury’s curriculum in an inauspicious direction.

With this in mind, I would like to present a modified proposal. Rather than beating around the bush, why not bring back the OTH requirement? What OTH lacks in political correctness, it would make up for in intellectual honesty. The exhaustive nature of the OTH category would at least recognize the inherent futility of trying to rationally subdivide the non-Western world into neat little groups. One need only look at the proposed new categories to see that any such attempt will result in an inelegant, un-nuanced framework. The ASI (Asia) requirement, for instance, would still lump together over half the world’s population, including the bulk of the world’s Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim civilizations. If the goal is to bestow a greater respect for the diversity of non-Western cultures, this hardly seems an improvement over the status quo.

The winds of change are in the air. President Liebowitz is leaving. Rumors surround the future of the honor code. Now Middlebury’s degree requirements also seem to be in flux. This is an exciting time to be a Middlebury student. Although I will likely not be around to witness the conclusion of these trends, I trust in the Middlebury community to resolve these issues logically and in the spirit of cooperation, collegiality, and reasoned discourse.

MAX KAGAN ’14 is from Freeport, ME

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