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ISSUE 119 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/18/2005

Wiped off the map: "Ideals to action" means little with limited courses

By Anna Gieselman
Contributing Writer


Friday, November 18, 2005

St. Olaf loves to talk about diversity. We boast about our many study abroad programs, MCS-G requirements, foreign language offerings and multicolored faces speckling St. Olaf brochures.

With all of this rhetoric about diversity on campus, one would expect the college administration to be committed to the same ideals which we proudly declare in chapel and splash across our pamphlets.

Sadly, the current reality is quite different. A glance at the globe will attest to the enormity of the African continent, but St. Olaf has effectively wiped Africa from the map.

Provost and Dean of the College James May and his council have refused to fund the tenure of a full-time African historian, and this February, our history department will lose one of the most brilliant minds of the St. Olaf faculty: Professor Helena Pohlandt-McCormick.

The history department currently employs 12 tenured faculty members and three visiting professors. Only three of them teach the histories of regions beyond Europe and the United States: One is a Russian historian, one an East Asian historian, and one a half-time Latin Americanist.

Perhaps the dean’s committee assumes there simply is no need for a full-time, tenured African historian at our school; like Latin America, Africa is not of full-time concern to us.

The problem does not lie with our students. The South African history class is one of the most popular in the history department, and the South African Interim program has consistently been in high demand.

But, this January will be the last South African Interim offered by Professor Pohlandt-McCormick and there will be no African history course this spring.

As a senior history major with a marked interest in Africa, I am disappointed and frustrated that during my four years here, not one senior seminar has focused on Africa.

I felt lost after returning from a semester abroad in Senegal to realize that my school did not offer a single class on West Africa. And now, I am disheartened that the one consistently available African history course will soon be cut.

The degree to which the African continent remains shrouded in mystery in the West is troubling.

One of my professors suggested we break an idea down to the point that it could be understood by “someone over in Swahililand.” Shouldn’t we be concerned when even members of the intellectual elite of our country consider Africa little more than a big, dark, homogeneous continent full of simple, undereducated individuals?

St. Olaf students can learn about 20th century Russia or health care in France. We can major in Norwegian and participate in Asian Conversations.

But, we cannot learn about the blending of Christianity and modern voodoo practices in Togo, nor can we strive to understand the basis of ethnic conflict and civil wars in Liberia.

Our academic offerings speak volumes about the kind of learning and cultural traditions we value; the underepresentation of Africa is both shocking and shameful. How can we expect African students or black Americans to come to a school that does not consider African history a subject worth teaching on a regular basis?

“Ideals to action” – this clever little phrase hovers above the St. Olaf emblem on our website and on official stationery. But, if the recent actions of the dean’s committee speak to the ideals of our school’s administration, then we have cause to worry.

For a school that prides itself on a global vision, St. Olaf has become terribly nearsighted. I urge anyone concerned with this issue to contact Dean May (may@stolaf.edu) and Jim Farrell, chair of the history department (farrellj@stolaf.edu). They need to hear our voices and to know that we care about the diversity of our education.

Contributing writer Anna Gieselman is a senior from Boise, Idaho. She majors in history, French and Spanish.


Contributing writer Anna Gieselman is a senior from Boise, Idaho. She majors in history, French and Spanish.


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