14 October 2012

Fuck Famous Dead White Guys

My astronomy class just covered history of astronomy, a very upsetting topic. I mean, have you ever heard of a more racist discipline than history of science? OK, you probably have, but suffice to say that history, including history of science, is written in a really fucking RACIST way.

Actual slide from the powerpoint.
Well, my professor is white. But he’s certainly not racist, is he? I mean, he’s not even colorblind. In key with our wonderful, liberal, post-racial city of Boulder, he’s not afraid to say the truth: history of astronomy, he says, is just a bunch of “Famous Dead White Guys”. No, I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what he says. And, I mean, he can’t be wrong. After all, there is such a high percentage of POC at CU that they would certainly say something if he was! Besides, isn’t that all we are learning about in class? Famous Dead White Guys?

The history of science chapter (called "The Science of Astronomy") in my textbook (The Cosmic Perspective, Sixth Edition, by Jeffrey Bennett, Megan Donahue, Nicholas Schneider, and Mark Voit) is divided into five parts. (1) "The Ancient Roots of Science"; (2) "Ancient Greek Science"; (3) "The Copernican Revolution"; (4) "The Nature of Science"; and (5) "Astrology". We skipped over Part I.

Now, to be honest, I don’t blame the textbook (which, upon further observation, I discovered was written in part by two professors from CU, which is making me want to get confrontational) for grouping geographically and historically broad and vast astronomical discoveries under one chapter of "ancient astronomy"; nor do I blame my textbook for distinguishing Ancient Greek astronomy from other astronomies of and before its time, and designating an individual chapter just for this historical period. For an introductory class that goes over these things so quickly, you have to make some sacrifices. And, yes, that might include skimming over interesting and big astronomical discoveries. The Greeks, however, are a lot harder to skim over. I am not saying that they were the only ancients to make ground-breaking astronomical discovery, but, for historical reasons, their ideas are more causally linked to our astronomical understanding today. I do think, however, it was incredibly wrong of our professor to choose not to teach the chapter on ancient astronomy. He specifically chose to ignore that which was already under-represented, and I am not ok with that.

But what bothered me even more is that from there, it skips straight to Renaissance science. And there's where I bit my lip in frustration. There's a lot that happened in between.

Our favorite time-period to ignore in world history is the Golden Age of Islam. I never learned it even existed until I was twenty-one years old. Until then, I thought pretty much nothing happened during the Middle Ages. Man, was I wrong. And yes, I had studied history; I had taken World History. And I still knew so little about this. To this day, my knowledge of Islamic and Middle Eastern history is not that thorough. But I do know, vaguely, but I do know, that astronomy was important in the Muslim World during this time.

I decided to bring this up in class to see if I could get my professor to talk about it. I did this in form of a question. After patiently waiting for the end of Famous Dead White Guys, I raised my hand and asked: "Can you tell us anything about medieval Arabic astronomy".

The short answer is he said "no". That's a quote. "No".

He then admitted that he knows almost nothing about medieval Arabic astronomy, and directed us to take the ancient astronomy class or read the ancient astronomy chapter in the text book. Since when is medieval astronomy ancient? It isn't neither, chronologically nor causatively. Nor is it my responsibility to educate myself on the history of science just because my silly professor does not care enough so learn it himself. Hint:if you only know famous dead white guys, you don't know history.

Here is the thing. History; history of science; history of astronomy; none of these are famous dead white guys. That's just how we learn them. That's just how the text books are written, how the professors teach the classes. That's just how we learn history: by ignoring anyone who's not white or male. This is not how history actually is. And it makes me angry when we ignore that.

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