A Justification for Ethnic Studies

A One-Time Naysayer Now Finds a Normative Basis for the Nascent Field

As the Fall 1996 term approaches, one of the near-perpetual cause celebres occupying student activists at Harvard looks to loom large again. Ethnic studies represents one of the few issues on which students and administrators within the University remain far from consensus on a suitable disposition. While activists demand departmental status for the field, administrators refuse even to appoint a committee which will formally investigate the possibility.

Given the friction raised by this clash, a lot of charges and counter-charges have been traded by both sides. I doubt that any editorialist could quickly articulate the patterns of justification offered by either side in this controversy. Yet both tend to overlook the philosophical roots of their positions. By sharpening these distinctions, perhaps some clarity can be lent to a debate too often characterized by murky accusations and questioning of motives.

I must confess that for a long time I was neither engaged nor even interested in this debate. The activists appeared to me as self-indulgent genealogists, seeking academic credit for a strictly personal interest. Then about a year ago one of my roommates took a course on corridos, or Mexican folk ballads, offered by a visiting professor in the English department. The fascination with which he read his texts for the course, and the enthusiasm with which he described his work struck me deeply. I learned quite a bit in the process as well--the social value and poetic richness of an art form which I had ignorantly disregarded as annoying background music.

Having re-thought my position, I began to take more seriously the fundamental claims which ethnic studies implied. Even those of us who make normative evaluations our primary goal while in college rarely take the time to question the very nature and role of the educational process. Are we mere technicians, taught to recognize and repeat various analytical techniques? Is there no deeper end to our studies, no more transcendental goal?

If these questions are answered affirmatively, there is little room in the academy for ethnic studies. Formalistic analysis may well be disregarded in a field laden with evaluative opportunities. Yet when the transformative potential of learning is properly valued and embraced, the case reverses. If we aspire merely to become better analysts while in college, ethnic studies looks like a poor relation to such analytically developed fields as mathematics, biology or physics. But for those who aspire to become better selves, such cultural explorations can be essential starting points for reflection on the nature of communal commitment and personal identity.

This normative justification for ethnic studies may initially seem preachy or provincial. Yet I maintain that the very traditions of liberal education dictate that such an ethical orientation be not only tolerated, but valorized. The great irony behind the diehard "Western Civ" crowd's opposition to ethnic studies is their neglect of the fact that the very tradition which they extol culminates in a modern conception of identity which makes ethnic studies a worthwhile aim. From Augustine to Nietzsche, and from Shakespeare to Rilke, the sweep of Western philosophy and literature calls us to a goal of self-realization through authenticity.

Perhaps best articulated by Proust in his Remembrance of Things Past, this ethic dictates that the individual's imaginative re-appropriation of his own past is the best means of cultivating an educated perspective. A liberal education can scarcely aspire to do more. And those who seek to elevate the Western canon by denying racial and ethnic minorities a chance to create their own "usable pasts" do nothing but dishonor its normative implications.

At this point I imagine that the advocates of the status quo will strongly object, claiming that such a moral spin on educative processes necessarily subverts academic objectivity. I'll concede immediately that ethnic studies is a necessarily political project--the kind of deep resonances and solidarities that will be built up by such study, both within and between the newly "aware" minorities who learn more about their and other cultures, will be immense. Neo-conservatives argue in reply that such a connection necessarily contaminates the ethnic studies agenda. Advocacy in the class room is not only non-traditional, but unethical--and the use of the academy for political gain is viewed as nothing less than a sacrilege.

The great irony here that the neighsayers themselves are making a profoundly political move--in preserving the status quo. As Cass Sunstein notes in his The Partial Constitution, much modern conservative advocacy centers around "taking, as given and as the baseline for decision, the status quo, or what various people and groups now have." This status quo neutrality masquerades as impartiality or objectivity, advancing its objectives all the more insidiously by virtue of its ostensible ideological purity. Thus there is no apolitical foundation from which the ethnic studies advocates wish to displace the current curriculum. Ethnic studies advocates should not shrink from pointing this out, or denying the political roots of their action.

As one deeply sympathetic to the activists' position, I admire their tenacious protests, consciousness-raising and even fasting. Yet I would like to call them to a take perhaps a less confrontational political position and a more radical philosophical justification of their enterprise. As Kafka once said, "a book must be an ax which we can take against the frozen sea within us." Where the force of identity politics has failed heretofore, perhaps the vertiginous decentering occasioned by reflections on the metaphysics of identity can lead to the unforced consensus upon which all social movements depend.