A Degree in Ethnic Studies

Ethnic studies is a legitimate field in its own right, warranting a degree-granting committee

The conspicuous display of bright green ribbons at last month's Cultural Rhythms show notwithstanding, the call for greater opportunities for ethnic studies at Harvard seems to have had little effect. Part of the problem has been confusion over what the goals of ethnic-studies advocates should be--what kind of ethnic studies program would most benefit the College and its undergraduates. It is our belief that, based on the current success of other interdisciplinary programs at Harvard, the College should create of a degree-granting committee in ethnic studies.

America has been a place of racial and ethnic integration--as well as divisiveness--since its birth. The far-reaching effects of race and ethnicity strongly influence academic disciplines from literature to sociology. Currently, however, Harvard does not offer its students the chance to explore the subject of ethnicity in all its manifestations. Students interested in pursuing ethnic studies have few options. The Committee on Ethnic Studies, made up of faculty from various departments, does little but offer a guide to ethnic studies-related classes in various departments.

However, ethnic studies is a field deserving of study on its own terms, and students should not be forced to compromise their academic interests by concentrating in another field. The lack of a degree-granting ethnic studies program means that students interested in issues of race and ethnicity can only pick and choose from a limited selection of disconnected courses in various departments. The requirements of individual departments (especially tutorial requirements) are not designed to facilitate this type of general study, and those who do take this approach (concentrating in English, say, to focus on Asian-American literature) do a disservice to both fields.


Harvard's excellent Afro-American Studies department serves as an outstanding model of an effective way to study the subject of race and ethnicity in the United States. The department offers courses on Afro-American literature, sociology, political organization, history and philosophy. Implicit in the structure of the concentration is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the unique Afro-American experience. It recognizes that ethnicity should not be viewed only through the lens of a single academic area.

This does not mean that an ethnic studies program must have full departmental status to be viable, although an ethnic studies department would be welcome. Alternatively, by following the example of history and literature or social studies, the College could establish an interdisciplinary degree-granting committee on ethnic studies. Like these other concentrations, ethnic studies could utilize a comparative approach through the use of several fields of study. The committee could offer tutorials taught by professors or lecturers from different fields, enabling students to choose the rest of their concentration courses from a broad spectrum of other humanities departments.

In a letter to students in 1995, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles affirmed that the study of race and ethnicity "has been one of the major concerns of scholars through time." Yet, stating mostly financial concerns, he brushed aside the prospects for an ethnic studies concentration.

However, a degree is the ultimate signal of academic legitimacy. By refusing to offer a degree in ethnic studies as an option to undergraduates, the College denies its validity as an academic field of study.

Harvard must face that the interdisciplinary academic study of race and ethnicity is a pressing area of research and discussion. If Harvard wants to remain on the cutting edge of academia, it should offer a program in ethnic studies. We urge the Faculty to listen to the students and create, at their next meeting, an exploratory committee to study the possibility of an ethnic studies degree.

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