Challenging Assumptions

by Ashley Boothby '07

I have a confession to make. When I was asked to describe the Core program in 700 words or less, I balked. Core has meant so many different things to me, I was afraid I’d do a disservice if I couldn’t mention them all. And frankly, I haven’t fully realized the implications of Core quite yet.

In so many classes, I’ve thought back to texts I read in Core, and things finally clicked that hadn’t the first time I’d thought about the arguments. I realized that this was one of the most amazing parts of the program: it forces you to think in new ways about everything you have been taught to take for granted, which, I found out, was an awful lot. And even though you can’t come to terms with it in one semester (or three), you begin to work out the implications of the ideas you are introduced to in just about every class you take in college, in most of your conversations, and, I predict,throughout your entire life.

Core was really scary at first, for this same reason. Questioning the ideological assumptions one is taught to hold, about “truth” and “progress” and what is seen to be “common sense”— and understanding how these abstract, amorphous ideas affect people’s lives on a real, day-to-day basis isn’t easy. But it’s damned important.

I want to give a concrete example that “represents” Core; obviously, if you’ve taken Core, you know how difficult even the most general “representation” of anything can be. Here goes: Take, for instance, the meaning of the veil for Muslim women.This traditional religious covering has been seen through western eyes as a symbol of the backwardness of many Arab countries, and of Islam in general. More than one instance of colonialism and/or war has been justified by the supposed “liberation” of Muslim women from their “primitive” male oppressors, who “force” them towear the veil. However, when one learns what Muslim women themselves think about the veil, and how they see the western dress that we take for granted, the picture becomes more complicated. Many Muslims believe that western women tend to be more oppressed because they are forced to become sex objects by revealing and shaping their bodies to fit men’s standards.

Even though this might seem like a simple or even minor discussion of what we talked about in Core, it is representative, I feel, of the broader issues that made the class so important for me. I was taken aback by my own cultural assumptions about these women, and began to ask myself questions.What does it mean to see something from a certain cultural perspective? Who can speak for “the other”? When the powerful speak for the powerless, does it (re)create or perpetuate certain forms of oppression? How are certain ideas—like the meaning of the veil—constructed and mediated and how do these ideas fit into a larger ideology of western and non-western society? Whose voices are heard in the construction of these ideas, and whose are silenced? And on and on.

Of course, I haven’t found the answers to these questions yet—nor do I think they have definitive answers. But I do think that Core has given me the tools to examine the world critically and attempt to understand how certain systems of thought have created injustice and oppression that is almost too overwhelming to imagine or bear. I also believe that these tools might allow me to change things for the better.

I couldn’t have done it alone. I want to thank my Core professors— Thomas Kim, Natalie Rachlin, and Amy Marcus-Newhall—for holding my hand when I needed it (and not holding my hand when I needed it) and enabling me to engage with ideas that have forever changed my life, how I saw the world, and my role in it.

Core is the best thing about Scripps College because it shows how this school is willing to make its students take the risks involved in thinking, even when this might make us uncomfortable or outraged.