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Ethnic Studies Has Merit



A few weeks ago I was at this panel discussion listening to someone tell me how to be Asian-American. He was Chinese-American. He had a triangular mohawk. He had a snazzy floral-print vest.

None of these things mattered. He was still wrong.

One of the things he said was that Asian-Americans who dye or perm their hair are trying to be white. This may be true for some, but definitely not for all.

In any case, I get annoyed when people start preaching about what Asian-Americans can and can't be. As if we come pre-packaged, hair follicles glued in place a la Cabbage Patch Kids.

Unfortunately, I'm beginning to hear a lot of this talk on campus. It seems that everyone, regardless of skin color, has a notion about who's who and what's what. I'm hoping for more intelligent discussion about race.

That's one of the reasons I support ethnic studies.

Yes, ethnic studies. What those students at Columbia were hunger-striking about last month. Maybe you read about it.

"P.C. Separatists," smirked the headline to one New York Times oped. An article in the Sacramento Beeblamed the nation's educational lassitude on women's and ethnic studies.

Personally, I think the critics are being silly.

Ethnic studies seems pretty simple to me. If you do some honest, objective scholarship about issues involving ethnic groups, you'll be able to spot some of the misconceptions surrounding them. If you take a class on ethnic studies, you'll be less ignorant about other people.

Ethnic studies would complicate our perceptions on race. And that's what all good scholarship does. It helps us see the shades of grey in every picture. That doesn't sound very separatist. It sounds like people just want to learn more about other people, maybe get rid of some stereotypes.

In any case, I'm kind of surprised ethnic studies is called separatist when the students who are supporting it, at Harvard and across the nation, come from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Personally, I wish my mohawk-headed friend had taken more ethnic studies classes. Perhaps he would have realized the diversity of experiences in the Asian-American (not to mention Chinese-American) community, and not been so quick to lump them all together under demagogically convenient labels.

I should preface my comments: I'm an American history and literature concentrator.

Yes, I honestly like to study dead white males. Melville and Hawthorne and their ilk.

I'm perfectly content with my concentration. Good literature is good literature, no matter who writes it. And I'm studying some great stuff. Do I fear that by supporting ethnic studies, I am advocating the advent of a waste-land of academic vapidity, racial separatism and cultural malaise?

Not at all. Some of the most exciting work that's being done in the fields of literature and history has to do with racial issues and previously under-studied ethnic groups.

And in any case, what does "supporting ethnic studies" mean?

Does it mean that everyone has to start concentrating in Asian-American and Latino studies? That everyone has to take a course on Marcus Garvey and Cesar Chavez? That everyone should start wearing. Maxine Hong Kingston t-shirts?

No. If that were the case, you could have counted me out long ago. I like studying Walt and Waldo, thank you.

The main things that the Ethnic Studies Action Committee and Academic Affairs Council want are more professors with experience teaching ethnic studies and more courses that deal with this scholarship.

More elective courses, mind you.

Recently, the chair of the Committee on Ethnic Studies recommended that the administration make the current dean's committee into a standing committee of the Faculty. That's a good idea.

I personally am unsure about whether ethnic studies should have its own separate department (although the Afro-American Studies Department begs the question), but that's not even a consideration at this point.

If anything, you need at least a standing committee if you're going to be serious about promoting scholarship in the field. Such a committee could raise funds and encourage faculty hiring and research in ethnic studies.

Establishing it would give ethnic studies some institutional permanence at Harvard. And it would also be a meaningful sign that the administration finally thinks ethnic studies has some academic merit.

It's about time. Students have been telling them that for more than 20 years.

Students have also been asking for more courses these last two decades. Harvard lists more than 90 courses in its "Ethnic Studies at Harvard" booklet that are outside the Afro-American Studies department.

You read the titles.

"Asian and Hispanic Politics in the United States."

Sounds good.

"20th-Century American Theater."

Did I miss a word? "20th-Century American Ethnic Theater," right?

"International Conflicts in the Modern World."

Is this the right book?

Apparently, Dean of Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles defines ethnic studies broadly. Very broadly. "The study of race and ethnicity in the United States and worldwide," he calls it.

That's strange. I see only one other course here that even includes "Asian" in the title. Latinos? One. (The same class: "Asian and Hispanic Politics in the United States.")

Perhaps this is why students say they only count 25 ethnic studies courses.

The administration says with some justifiable pride that it has increased the number of scholars doing research in fields related to ethnic studies. There have been two additions per year since 1991.

But that doesn't mean so much when there are still only Manny, Moe and Jack courses to choose from.

I don't want to get picky. I'm sure many of the "ethnic studies" courses are good. Many of them are comparative, which is fine.

I just have two problems: 1) A lot of these courses deal with everywhere but the United States; and 2) When you're dealing with five or six ethnic groups in one class, you're not going to be getting at what I was talking about earlier: the complexity within each ethnic group.

You'll have one or two writers representing an ethnic literary population or one or two history books.

That's not very complex.

Science professors teach classes on particles smaller than atoms. Surely there is enough material to teach within one or two ethnic groups to fill up a course.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that having more courses in ethnic studies is going to rebuild the slums or feed orphan kids. That would be nice, but somehow unrealistic. I just think this kind of scholarship has academic merit. I think it has real-world relevance, too.

Those are two things I can't say for a lot of classes I see weighing down the telephone book I call "Courses of Instruction" (and this has nothing to do with courses on white males, of whom I am quite fond).

Ethnic studies isn't separatist and it isn't anti-white.

Perhaps if Harvard hired radical, militant ethnic studies professors this would be the case. Maybe that happens at other colleges; I don't know.

But last time I checked, subscriptions to The Socialist Worker weren't booming in Harvard Square. Professor Harvey C. Mansfield '53 was still talking about grade inflation.

Ethnic studies is a moderate and modest request. All students at Harvard are asking for is more courses in ethnic studies. More scholarship.

Ergo, more complexity and more understanding.

That's something I hope all people, Dean Knowles and my mohawk-headed friend included, can appreciate.

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