Hillsdale students are familiar with Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, but have they ever heard of Ibn-Sina, Nagarjuna, or Keiji Nishitani? Maybe, but they can’t thank Hillsdale College’s core curriculum for that knowledge.
The core’s exclusion of Eastern traditions and religions most recently came under scrutiny when a reporter from The New York Times visited campus to write a profile of the college.
The journalist, Erik Eckholm, spoke with a thinly veiled criticism, referring to the college’s emphasis on classical Western literature as a system “sometimes disparaged as the Great Books of dead white men.”
Eckholm and those like him would have Hillsdale teach its students about Eastern traditions for the sake of the contemporary understanding of “diversity,” a notion which many Hillsdalians dismiss outright.
But is this understanding of diversity the only reason that might compel the college to include Eastern traditions in the core? Not according to Hillsdale’s Professor of Philosophy James Stephens.
For Stephens, Hillsdale should teach Eastern traditions by default. He asks what reason the college could possibly have for not including them.
“Hillsdale makes claims to teach and study a universal human nature,” Stephens said. “Yet we only study how that nature manifests in the Western tradition.”
Hillsdale’s claims about truth are displayed for all to see on the college website’s description of the core curriculum: “Here, the questions are provocative, the debates robust, and the coursework intense. This journey is designed to lead you to universal truths.”
In spite of these claims to universality, students of the core receive little guidance as to how these truths might be seen in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, or any other Eastern philosophical and religious traditions.
The Spring 2017 course schedules for the philosophy and religion departments contain eight sections of Western Philosophical Tradition and nine sections of Western Theological Tradition, but no mention of Eastern philosophy even among major-specific courses. The only mention of Eastern religion is a single section of Introduction to Eastern Religion taught by Stephens.
According to Associate Professor of Politics John Grant, the omission is not due to any intentional disregard for Eastern philosophy.
“Non-Western thought is very much worthy of study,” Grant said. “I think the principal reason why we don’t spend much time studying material from outside the Western tradition is a practical one; it is very hard to obtain adequate knowledge of our own tradition.”
This lack of emphasis on Eastern thought is hardly unique to Hillsdale, however. According to research published in the Los Angeles Times last week, the course listings from the philosophy departments of the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California; and California State University, Los Angeles contain 23 courses mentioning Greek philosophy. But none of the universities had courses mentioning specific Chinese or Indian philosophers.
According to Assistant Professor of Religion Don Westblade, however, Hillsdale’s emphasis on the Western tradition is not a bad thing.
“Our religion department is a department of Western theology,” Westblade said. “And due to the type of students who enroll here, it’s unlikely that we would ever devote as much time to studying Eastern thought as we do Western.”
Westblade also said that the Introduction to Eastern Religion course will soon be a core requirement for Hillsdale’s religion major.
But the belief in a self-evident and universal human nature is not unique to the Western tradition, and students of all majors should be given the chance to encounter other manifestations of that human nature.
While the college hasn’t yet seen fit to invest the professorship or materials necessary to incorporate Eastern traditions into the core curriculum, the tradition which our college does teach and uphold demands that the college gather the resources and allow students to look Eastern traditions in the eye.