Gandhi, Chavez and You

Mohandas Gandhi used the hunger strike. Union organizer Cesar Chavez used the hunger strike. Last Friday, a few members of Harvard's Ethnic Studies Action Committee (ESAC) joined this moral crew, skipping the daily offerings of Harvard Dining Services in an effort to protest the absence of ethnic studies courses at Harvard.

The hunger strike is an overtly political weapon to be used against a moral adversary, or an adversary who depends upon a moral public. By practicing slow self-destruction, the protester displays his or her supreme devotion to a cause in an effort to undermine the moral defenses of the adversary.

ESAC's day-long fast was supposed to show support for serious protesters at Northwestern University who fasted for several weeks to call for an Asian American Studies Program. But the incongruity of Gandhi fasting to shock Hindus and Muslims into ending ethnic slaughter and a dozen college students fasting to get jobs for a few professors should lead many to question what was really happening on the Widener steps.

It's hard to imagine the Harvard Republican Club fasting to bring George Will to Harvard or history concentrators staging a sit-in to protest the new intellectual history track. By using a hunger strike, ESAC undermines its call for recognition by displaying its cause as essentially political and not academic.

Ethnic studies does not simply represent a desire for greater diversification of a university curriculum. In fact, as even some ethnic studies professors point out, such diversity jeopardizes the ethnic studies agenda by threatening to make its academic goals obsolete.

University of Colorado professor Evelyn Hu-DeHart, whom ESAC quotes in their manifesto, admits that activism and not academics is the motor behind the movement. Hu-DeHart argues that growing acceptance of ethnic studies' basic academic premise--that past social scientists have focused on elite perspectives--challenges its position as a separate discipline apart from traditional academic departments. "The challenge is to reconcile the academic goal of ethnic studies--the production of knowledge--with its original commitment to liberating and empowering the communities of color [emphasis mine]," she writes.

Few today would argue that scholarship is not advanced by looking at a people through its own eyes. Nor would many argue that there is little to be gained by studying race and the immigrant experience in America. Put Hu-DeHart reveals these laudable academic goals to be only on the periphery of the call for ethnic studies. Hunger strikes and sit-ins are a display of ethnic identity, a protest by people who perceive the American university to be dominated by a "Eurocentric" mode of thought that excludes non-white Americans.

In fact, ethnic studies is really a misnomer. While the term implies a study of national identity and cultural differences of all people, ESAC limits its definition to "groups of color," who "have a shared history of having been viewed as distinct from the European immigrants." With a disturbing lack of historical perspective, proponents of ethnic studies argue that America has welcomed all peoples of "white" background into the fold, while all "non white" Americans have been relegated to the periphery. This black and white scheme ignores the diverse experiences of people from both non-white and white backgrounds. It presumes a unity of each "side" that is patently false.

ESAC's call for recognition is simply a veiled demand for a department that accepts its thesis that America is a nation irredeemably separated along racial fissures. While Harvard should continue to seek new approaches to knowledge, especially in areas that have been overlooked in the past, there is more than enough room for such expansion within existing disciplines.

There are already dozens of Harvard courses about ethnicity in America that approach the topic from various academic perspectives. And perhaps a case could be made for more. But Harvard should not fall into the trap of creating a standing committee based upon politics and empowerment instead of the production of knowledge.

Steven A. Engel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.