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The Model What?

By Angela C. Makabali

"If you’re serious about Asian American studies, you’ve come to the wrong school.” This statement greets prospective students and first-years in the “Handbook to Asian America at Harvard and Beyond,” which they receive at their respective activities fairs. In spite of its resources as one of the foremost universities in the world, Harvard offers fewer opportunities in Asian American and ethnic studies than most prestigious public and private institutions, and it must remedy this situation.

As its primary objective, the Asian American movement seeks the institution of educational programs relevant to Asian American communities. Teaching the history of Asians in America from their own perspective allows Asian Americans to reclaim their agency as subjects, rather than as passive objects or as the “model minority” of American history. In the past, curriculums rarely addressed the experiences or issues of Asian Americans, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Devoting only a few paragraphs to them at most, the glaring omission of Asian Americans discounted their historical and contemporary contributions to American society. Yet this all changed with the institutionalization of Asian American studies and ethnic studies programs at many universities. Students could finally examine issues of identity, community and social formations in an academic framework.

However, Harvard is over 30 years behind on this trend. The nationwide movement for the establishment of these programs began in the 1960s when, inspired by the ongoing civil rights movement, students first combined academic and activist orientations in the demand for Asian American studies. Unlike prior generations, young people believed that their common experiences as racialized and marginalized Asian immigrant groups in the United States transcended the conflict-ridden histories of their respective Asian countries of heritage. With the dehumanization of Vietnamese, Cambodians and other Southeast Asians in Western news coverage of the Vietnam War, the pressure for action among the self-designated “Asian Americans” resulted in the Third World Liberation Front—a series of strikes in solidarity with other students of color at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley from 1968-1969. The following year, the first Asian American studies programs were established through the ethnic studies departments at San Francisco State, Berkeley and later the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

At Harvard, there have been no regular introductory courses focusing upon Asians in the United States. The main resource for Asian American studies is the annual Committee on Ethnic Studies booklet, which lists undergraduate courses relevant to studies of race and ethnicity. But the only academic outlet for students has consisted of the occasional course taught by a visiting professor. Also, the Courses of Instruction do not offer any classes that critically analyze Asian Americans in history, government, psychology or other fields. Even the rare acknowledgment of Asian Americans in the curriculum occurs as a cursory and reductive afterthought.

While students purportedly have the option of studying race and ethnicity through their current concentrations, multiple factors—such as concentration and Core requirements or limited enrollments—may discourage students from taking classes on subjects that, although related to the Asian American experience, are highly specialized. Often, students choose to enroll in African and African American studies courses to obtain the necessary race theory background. However, African and African American studies typically frame race as a black-white binary, excluding Asian American, Hispanic, Native American and other students. Students find similar limitations in East Asian studies and its emphasis on Asians in East Asia because it rarely includes the historical and contemporary experiences of people of Asian heritages in the United States. While classes on Vietnam and parts of South Asia exist, few even acknowledge Filipinos, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong and other Southeast Asian ethnicities—whether in Asia or in America.

To address this problem, the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association and other students have launched an Asian American Studies Seminar Series, with the support of the Committee on Ethnic Studies. This series seeks to remedy the lack of basic knowledge at Harvard about the rich history and cultures of Asians in America. It will critically look at how Asian American studies has lived up to its original objectives of social change and the political empowerment of minority students and communities. Through acknowledgement of the experiences of these communities in the United States and in a global context, this program will also address the Eurocentrism evident in higher education, especially at Harvard.

Currently, Asian American studies and ethnic studies programs flourish in colleges and universities across the country. Elite institutions such as Stanford, Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania have all started successful programs, mostly through student activism and initiative. It is about time that Harvard lives up to its reputation as one of the leading academic institutions in the United States and the world by establishing greater academic opportunities in Asian American studies and other ethnic studies, thereby recognizing the valuable contribution such courses would bring to undergraduate education.

Angela C. Makabali ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. She is educational-political chair of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association.

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