As graduation approaches for another cohort of Tufts students, many are reflecting on the coursework they have had in these past four years — not just with regard to how it has prepared them for a career, but also how it has enhanced their understanding of the world. Regarding this latter issue, the scope of what they’ve learned about the world may be disappointingly narrow. At Tufts, like many other predominantly white institutions, curricula often center around the Eurocentric perspectives of Westerners — particularly white men — narrowing the worldview to which students are exposed. Not only does this reality undermine Tufts’ liberal arts foundation of exposing students to a wide array of subjects, it also fails to prepare students for civic stewardship in which they directly engage with the effects of patriarchy, colonialism and racism. These oppressive structures shape the world we live in, and at a school like Tufts that purports to prepare students for active citizenship, every student should be learning about them.
Across departments, students at Tufts have already raised concerns about the need for curricula that engage with systemic inequalities. This fall, students in the Department of Political Science called out a lack of diverse authorship and other gaps in the department’s curricula. This resulted in the creation of a student advisory committee that incorporates student input into how the department can be more inclusive in its structure and curricula. This example is particularly significant, because political science should be a discipline that teaches students how power works in society — a question that cannot be answered with only the perspectives of Western, white men.
Another area where student activism has already highlighted the need for change is within Tufts’ International Relations Program. Tufts Women in International Relations, an organization for femme-identifying international relations students, has led calls to address the underrepresentation of women and nonbinary authors and scholars of color in the program, with a particular focus on the syllabus for Introduction to International Relations. The group has found support for this cause within the student body, and even among sympathetic faculty, indicating that momentum is on its side.
Currently, the closest thing to a mandate for Tufts students to engage with underrepresented voices is the world civilizations foundation requirement, which aims to expose students to non-Western civilizations. Still, a very broad range of courses can meet this requirement, not all of which actually teach students to create more inclusive spaces in their own communities. Further, this requirement only applies to students in the School of Arts and Sciences, and not engineers, limiting the extent to which it can shape the whole campus community.
Courses that do not engage with the effects of patriarchy, racism or colonialism cannot paint an accurate portrait of the world for students, something much of the student body already knows. Unfortunately, many of the university’s academic programs are not on the same page as the student body, and their courses that do engage with these oppressive structures are often optional electives. To rectify this situation, it is critical that Tufts’ academic programs reorient themselves to teach all students about how these structures influence the world — learning about the existence of racism or sexism should not be a niche endeavor.
This matter is of particular urgency for programs such as the International Relations Program that are supposed to educate students about structures of power in the world. The issues flagged by Tufts Women in International Relations — namely the curriculum’s Eurocentrism and underrepresentation of women, gender minorities and people of color — are serious, and it is important that the program adapt to teach students about critical engagement with structures like colonialism and patriarchy. To use another example, the political science major requires every student to take one of the two Western political thought classes — courses that exclusively feature content written by European men — without any mandate that majors learn about politics outside of the West, or outside of men’s perspectives. The political science major does have a comparative politics and government requirement, but even this can be fulfilled with European politics courses. The international relations and political science programs are just two of many at Tufts that would benefit from teaching diversified curricula that fully engage with the inequalities faced by communities that aren’t all white and aren’t all men.
Beyond changing the literature within any one program, Tufts should also consider making participation in an ethnic studies course a distribution requirement for all undergraduates, so that every Tufts graduate can understand how racial, ethnic and Indigenous identities impact societies and communities. Tufts could also accomplish similar goals through a required course focused on equity and justice, something recommended in the Equity and Inclusion workstream launched with the task of making Tufts an anti-racist institution. If Tufts were to actually go down one of these possible paths, it would be following in the footsteps of other universities that have prioritized the study of racial justice through similar requirements. It would be important to make sure that any such requirements apply to engineering students in addition to students in the School of Arts and Sciences, since technology has not been neutral in history, and now, as in the past, it continues to reinforce and amplify the biases and prejudices of its creators. From sexist algorithms to medical devices calibrated for white skin, technology is capable of reinforcing a range of social inequities, and it is therefore especially important that the people who design it understand these inequities.
Tufts is a liberal arts institution that aims to expose students to a wide breadth of knowledge and takes pride in preparing future civic leaders. But good civic stewards must learn to work with diverse communities and must be prepared to address a range of inequalities, tasks that are only possible when they have studied diverse perspectives and learned about oppressive social structures. Unless Tufts can make sure that every graduate gains basic knowledge in these areas, it is failing both its students and the communities its graduates enter.