Russia as a Global Study?

By, Sindhu Krishnamurthy

For years, the options for Global Studies courses have remained India, Africa, China, and the Middle East. However, next year, Winsor is considering implementing a new Global Studies course: Russia. Russia is a distinct choice from its forebears; while previous courses have all been focused on primarily non-white parts of the world, Russia is predominantly white, with 81% of its population being ethnic Russians as of 2010. As a result, the decision has been controversial among the student body. Over 70 Winsor students and alumnae have signed a petition against the addition of the course.

“We are only required to take 2.5 years of history at Winsor, and this course allows someone to complete that requirement without studying a non-white culture,” points out Chloe D. ’19. “The continuous racism in this country also makes the study of non-white cultures indescribably important… As a [person of color] at Winsor, it feels like a slap in the face that the administration does not seem to understand the importance of seeing racial diversity in our curriculum, especially when we are underrepresented in the faculty and student body.”

Chloe expresses an important concern in the Winsor community—the need for a curriculum that is more inclusive in regard to racial diversity. Students spend freshman year at Winsor studying European history and sophomore year studying American history; in many eyes, the Global studies course should be, and is, a space intended to introduce greater diversity to Winsor’s upper school curriculum.

However, it should be noted that racial diversity is not necessarily the original focus of the Global Studies course. Set forth in 2004 by the curriculum planning committee, the requirement, under the original title of “non-Western,” initially aimed to give students an opportunity to gain exposure to a non-Western culture. The committee’s report to the faculty at the time stated that non-Western courses “will permit students to experience a culture from the inside out, will provide students with opportunities to understand themselves in relation to others and to see themselves through others’ eyes, may expose students to world views other than their own, and may lead to understanding and appreciating another culture’s aesthetic values and standards.” Since then, the name of the course has been broadened to “Global Studies”— representing a turn away from a Western-centric definition of the rest of the world.

“This has never been conceived as the study of non-white people or non-white cultures,” clarifies Mr. Didier. “And I understand how some people maybe make that assumption given that it’s India, Africa, China, and the Middle East, but that was not the driving force behind those four regions.” He explains that the goal has always been “exploring cultures that are substantially different [from America].”  The objective of the requirement now is seemingly to provide students with an understanding of an alternate worldview—not necessarily a “non-Western” one or a “non-white” one—but a global one.

“Russia is a particularly intriguing new way of thinking about what Global Studies might mean,” Ms. Baker explains. “As a country, it has elements of both European and Asian influences… The Russian Federation is home to nearly 200 different ethnic groups; while the Western world tends to focus on the ethnic, or white Russian, in fact, Russia is a country that has struggled for hundreds of years to create a unifying national identity amidst diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups.” She also adds that this identity stands very much in contrast to “the West.”

“As someone who has family that has grown up in/are in Russia, I do feel that a lot of people have a misunderstanding of it, and the media has played a big role in that,” says Namuna B. ’19. “There are, in fact, ethnic diversity and a lot of history and culture in Russia…that people don’t consider or know or learn about, which is pretty hurtful and sad.”

Ultimately, it is difficult to call Russia merely another Western, white, European country due to its contradiction of Western thought and its breadth of ethnic diversity. It is also certainly a relevant region to study in America today—especially given Russia’s recent involvement in American politics. But the discussion ultimately raises the question—should Global Studies be a space to raise awareness of racial diversity, or rather a broader diversity of thought, government, and culture? Both spaces are desperately needed, considering America’s struggles with racism and xenophobia.

The debate here is also influenced by very practical concerns, ideals aside. While adding a new Global Studies course is necessary in the face of growing class sizes, hiring or training teachers to teach new courses is a difficult process. And although courses like South America are not currently feasible, Russia remains an option since Ms. Grant and Ms. Baker already have passion for and experience with it.

All this is not to say that the ethos of the Global Studies course can’t evolve in the future. When it comes to seeing greater racial diversity in Winsor’s curriculum, Mr. Didier concludes generally: “We can do better; but the absolute top priority for the curriculum right now isn’t non-white cultures. If we want to make it that way, that’s a much longer discussion, and we can make it that way. Things can change.”

Given the level of student demand for the Russia course to be replaced, this will be, at the very least, an extended discussion for Winsor’s curriculum planners in the coming years. After all, Winsor’s guiding principles do dedicate the school to a “more inclusive curriculum” and “a wide array of diversity.” It’s up to the Winsor community to decide what that means.