Illustration by Ming Hu

Eurocentrism at NYU Abu Dhabi: The Case of GEPS

GEPS merely offers a eurocentric view of the rise of the West, without any regard for the colonized.

Apr 28, 2018

Starting with the Class of 2021, NYU Abu Dhabi designated Global Economic, Political and Social Development since 1500 — or GEPS — as a required course for all three social science majors: Political Science, Economics and Social Research and Public Policy. The learning aims of GEPS, outlined in the syllabus, paint GEPS as a course that seeks to explain global inequality, industrialization and varying patterns of social and economic development. An evaluation of the syllabus and a few hours in the classroom indicate that the course is not at all global and is, in fact, entirely Eurocentric. This Eurocentrism is a feature of the course regardless of who teaches it, as the syllabus changes very little from professor to professor.
Instead of the proposed lessons about global development, the course begins with an explanation of how Europe conquered the world. In an Orientalist fashion that would make Edward Said roll over in his grave, there is little mention of the conquered beyond a cursory reading about the Ottoman and Chinese failure to utilize gunpowder and the European use of technology and disease in subjugating the natives of South and North America. A disproportionate majority of the course’s mandatory readings are dedicated to explaining internal European factors such as mercantilism, the political turmoil within Europe, the population demographics, the Bubonic plague and the breaking of the Malthusian trap. The colonized other is shunted to the side without any in-depth discussion of its social structures, demographics, political or economic situations.
If there had to be one fact that highlights the blatant Eurocentrism in GEPS, it is this: only two of the 34 required readings in the first 19 classes are related in any way to India, China, the Ottoman Empire or Latin America. None mention the rest of Asia or Africa.
Instead, the course continues its focus on Europe by detailing the Industrial Revolution, the economic rise of the United States, and the social and political structures of the United States and Britain. There is an entire section of the course dedicated to the rise of the English working class and another to the rise of democracy in Europe. There are no similar sections dedicated to significant political shifts in any other part of the world. The legacy of colonialism — or “outward expansion” — is addressed only in terms of its contribution to the European economy, while the numerous economic and social catastrophes it caused in many parts of the world are ignored.
Yet another example of the course’s one-sided agenda is that there is a paper on the Irish Famine of the 1850s that killed over 1 million people, but there is nothing on the Bengal famine of 1943 that killed over 3 million Indians as a result of British policies. For a course so heavily focused on economic history, there is no reading or discussion centered around the fact that in 1700 AD, India and China had a combined 46.8 percent of the world’s GDP, but by 1913, under British influence, that share had dropped to 16.3 percent.
However, India, China and the Ottoman Empire should consider themselves fortunate for their sparse mentions, since the continent of Africa is neglected entirely. Not one mandatory reading mentions the economic, political or social development of any of the African countries, let alone the disastrous results the continent suffered because of European colonialism. Latin America is dealt a similar fate; it is only mentioned to highlight the might of European weaponry.
When the explanations for inequality and varied patterns of development finally come in the latter half of the course, they are unsurprisingly Eurocentric. The only mandatory reading for Class 23, which discusses how inequality has changed over time, is a working paper on top income levels in European countries. Class 25, which is supposed to look at inequality, organized labor and demands for democracy, has one mandatory reading, a paper titled “How did Europe Democratize.” The focus for the final few weeks of the class is the Great Depression, the collapse of the Gold Standard and the rise of Bretton-Woods. It is as if democracy, inequality and economic development are only Western concerns.
When there is rare focus on other parts of the world, it can be appalling. Chapter 17 of the book A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark — a prescribed authority for many sections of this course — made the claim that the problem in underdeveloped countries is the poor quality of their labor forces. This claim, from an author who has also claimed that social inequality persists because some people inherit genes that make them socially competent, was not balanced by any explanation of competing ideas such as world systems theory.
Ideally, GEPS should serve as a stepping stone for social science majors to further explore the issues of inequality. Instead, it merely offers a Eurocentric view of inequality without any regard for the perspectives of those who were colonized. While European economic history is traced all the way from the first expeditions to Mexico to the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression and the Gold Standard, the rest of the world is almost completely ignored. Mentions of other parts of the world are often done in comparison with the West, and explanations for inequality are cursory, shallow and more than a little appalling.
One of the hallmarks of any global university should be its ability to include in its curriculum a diversity of knowledge and opinions from all corners of the world. The nature of mandatory courses like GEPS, however, illustrates that our particular global university, which prides itself on the diversity of its student body with over 115 nationalities represented, does not provide a truly global education. The lack of variety in perspectives serves to augment a Western hegemony over academia that paints global inequality as natural and fails to acknowledge or engage with the negative social, economic and political consequences of the long history of Western dominance.
Sobha Gadi is Deputy Features Editor. Email him at
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