Edwin M. Yoder Jr.'s Nov. 10 op-ed piece, which decried Fairfax County's proposal for a "new course emphasizing Asian, African and other non-Western cultures" as a "flight from history," was a classic example of why the non-Western addition to the curriculum is imperative.

Certainly, all history and geography in this country needs to be more rigorously taught. We all need firmly rooted common historical reference points (but whose "common"?) and a more profound historical memory.

Nor do I argue with Yoder about the importance of V. S. Naipaul's notion of the advent of a "universal civilization" whose "features and benefits to the human spirit are almost altogether Western in origin" and for which an "unshackled" world clamors.

Yoder, however, contended that because we know our "Western" selves imperfectly we have nothing to learn from "others afar." This was condescending at best, dangerous at worst. Would he presume to teach mathematics by just teaching algebra and leaving out geometry? Then why teach history and geography and skip (as we traditionally have) large segments of the world? Or dismiss Asia and Africa and other non-Western cultures as "exotic"? The Gulf crisis underlines all too clearly the risks of such arrogant dismissals.

Much of the West -- and apparently Yoder too -- has forgotten the many influences non-Westerners have had on our society. The very bedrock of Western thought, the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, comes to us via North Africa and Moorish Spain. At least twice, emperors from what is now Mali bankrupted the European gold market with the gold they took on the Haj simply to give away to beggars. We could not do double-entry bookkeeping without the contribution of the Arabs, who brought the zero from India and who gave us their numerals and algebra itself.

This is not mere "cultural sensitization." The issue is not either/or. It is both/and. Americans must add a thorough appreciation of the range of the world's diversity to a thorough knowledge of the "Western" tradition and start teaching both well and early. Otherwise, the next time Naipaul analyzes things, it will be us -- not the non-Western cultures -- that he will be describing as "static, inward-looking, insular and backsliding."

-- Margaret Sullivan

I went through 12 years of Fairfax public schools, graduated, taught there and now teach social studies in Washington. Although I took world history in ninth grade, I was taught only European history. I learned nothing of the achievements of the other peoples in the world.

I fear this type of education is all too common and Americans learn only of white accomplishments and therefore believe everyone else in the world has done nothing. I applaud Fairfax County for changing its curriculum to include a more accurate reflection of the contributions of all the world's people. It's about time.

-- David Sahr