A Non-Zero Sum Game

Ethnic studies advocates' frustration on European Studies is understandable

At the beginning of this term, Harvard rolled out a new program for undergraduate students interested in studying European History, Politics, and Society as an academic secondary field. Organized and planned by the Center for European Studies, the program is aimed at promoting an interdisciplinary approach to studying the subject matter, drawing on knowledge and methods of study from several disciplines.

Reactions to the creation of this secondary have been mixed. While one student expressed gratitude for the creation of this program that allows him to study European history in a way that he previously could not, the new offering is coming under fire from student leaders who are invested in promoting ethnic diversity on campus in academic offerings and beyond. These students argue that there is more significant demand for similar programs that propose to study non-Western cultures—like the newly created Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies or the Latino Studies secondary—and yet, these programs seem to be created and instituted less effectively.

We are always excited when the University provides students with more options and flexibility in their intellectual pursuits, and at this juncture, the creation of a European Studies secondary is no exception. Meanwhile, the concerns about the comparative ease with which this program has been realized are fair. It is indeed frustrating that there currently exist noticeably fewer opportunities for students to study non-Western cultures. And while this addition to the College’s European studies offerings will certainly pique the interest of some students, there are structural issues slowing down ethnic studies programs. The lack of existence of ethnic studies academic centers comparable to the Center for European Studies are certainly one such burden.

Advocates of other ethnic studies programs are understandably disappointed to see that this secondary has been created and instituted after three years of routine research, planning, and preparation. Since so many courses already offered by Harvard center on Western intellectual tradition, we understand why students are frustrated to see this part of Harvard’s undergraduate academic program continue to be perfected and expanded without parallel endeavors in other fields.

Projects of this magnitude, however, cannot be achieved overnight. Increased efforts to allocate resources to the to study other histories and cultures is a prerequisite to the creation of these programs. Harvard has long used excuses of lack of faculty and classes to support the creation of secondary fields and classes in other ethnic studies. Going forward, Harvard ought to increasingly invest its resources in them so that this excuse is no longer viable.

Furthermore, Harvard should work in consultation with the students who champion these fields of study. In response to activists’ irritation, Harvard would do well to explain with clarity how a secondary field is successfully created and implemented in three years. This way, the administration would ensure that student advocates for non-Western ethnic studies secondaries could propose workable programs and implement them within a similar time frame.

The process should be one of collaboration, rather than opposition. The creation of fields of study is not a zero-sum game.

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