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Eurocentrism at NYU Abu Dhabi: The Case of FOMST

By incorporating only European political, economic and social theory, the mandatory Social Science course Foundations of Modern Social Thought perpetuates old power structures and reinforces the myth of European exceptionalism.

Nov 9, 2019

With a student body hailing from over 115 different nationalities and its location in the Middle East, NYU Abu Dhabi was created in part to subvert traditional Western hegemonic models of higher education. One would therefore expect its academics to embody this same spirit, but its Social Science Department seems to be failing to uphold this mission.
Starting with the Class of 2021, every Social Science major is expected to take a common set of Foundations Courses. These include Global Political, Economic and Social Development since 1500, Foundations of Modern Social Thought or Introduction to Political Theory and Statistics for the Social and Behavioural Sciences. The idea was that every Social Science major should have a common interdisciplinary foundation — of history, theory and data analysis — with which to proceed into their respective disciplines.
While this seems like a sound academic model, many of these classes fail to do justice to the diversity and complexity of the social world. Over a year ago, The Gazelle published an article arguing that GEPS “merely offers a Eurocentric view of inequality without any regard for the perspectives of those who were colonized.” Today, it is high time we turn the spotlight to FOMST, which is equally narrow and Eurocentric.
The class focuses on the theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, Émile Durkheim, Fredrick Nietzche, Max Weber, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. “The way that I think about that class is providing students with an understanding of a limited but important set of debates and concepts that in many ways we're still trying to figure out today,” explained Eric Hamilton, a Lecturer of Political Science and a teacher of FOMST. Beginning from the 17th century, in the context of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, the class covers a particular set of debates surrounding sovereignty, governance, laws, economic systems, education and religion.
FOMST, however, stops in the early 20th century and remains within the confines of the debates between these white European men. While they have undoubtedly built a solid foundation for academia and politics today, this foundation was built on power structures — of racism, sexism and colonialism — that we have spent the past century trying to break away from.
A mandatory introductory class for the Social Sciences must, at the very least, also include prominent scholars who have subverted these power structures. Frantz Fanon’s criticism of colonialism as essentially destructive, Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of satyagraha and ahimsa and Gayatri Spivak’s conception of the term “subaltern” for instance, powerfully criticize the all-pervasive legacy of colonization. Likewise, notable feminist texts such as Sojourner Truth’s "Ain't I a Woman," Mary Wollstonecraft’s "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" and Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” provided pathbreaking insights about the deepseated patriarchy, while Black scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. were among the first to develop frameworks that countered centuries of racism.
These scholars pioneered the fight against oppressive power structures and are among the founders of our contemporary understanding of equality, justice and inclusion. In fact, most of today’s challenges outlined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals — be it eradicating poverty and hunger, bringing about gender equality or reducing global inequalities — are rooted in these scholars’ diagnoses of the problems with our world order. Their legacy and contribution are equally, if not more, significant to us today than those of the white male thinkers taught in FOMST.
Studying only European political, economic and social thought is grossly insufficient to create a theoretical foundation for an undergraduate education in the Social Sciences in 2019. By having FOMST and Introduction to Political Theory as the only introductory theoretical classes, NYUAD’s Social Science Department is perpetuating old power structures and reinforcing the myth of European exceptionalism. More importantly, it is conforming to the long-standing tradition of excluding marginalized voices of women, people of color and anyone outside of this limited dominant category.
“I'm very explicit about these sort of problems with the syllabus,” shared Hamilton, when I expressed these concerns to him. “Throughout the class, I try to bring in critiques of this modern project, which is to say I use this language about missing voices.” He also mentioned how he advocates for a follow-on class — a FOMST part two — to address these critiques.
But this misses the point. It still relegates these diverse, contemporary theories to a secondary, peripheral status in the hierarchy of importance. Every NYUAD Social Science student will still have to take a course on modern European theory, without studying post-colonial and feminist critiques in equal depth.
“Some of us had a vision of a SPET [Social, Political and Economic Thought] course that would be more inclusive,” shared Hannah Bruckner, Program Head of Social Research and Public Policy. “We just don’t have the resources at the moment to live up to these aspirations.”
The stakes, however, are too high to justify inaction. The Eurocentric nature of mandatory courses such as GEPS and FOMST goes against the very fundamentals of globalism and multiculturalism that NYUAD so dearly espouses. It suggests that despite its commitment to diversity, NYUAD is failing to fully break away from centuries of Western hegemony over academia. And that’s a shame.
Surely, we can do better. We must do better.
Kaashif Hajee is Managing Editor. Email him at
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