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The Case for Ethnic Studies

Advocates for Asian-American studies might want to shift their strategy

By The Crimson Staff

Despite several campaigns over the past 20 years to create a program in Asian-American studies, Harvard remains without a single full-time professor in the field. But while this gap may take time to fill given the recent downturn in humanities faculty hiring, improving Harvard’s pedagogical offerings in Asian American studies would be far easier. While we support the creation of an Asian American studies track for secondary concentrators in East Asian studies—a move that seems increasingly likely—the creation of such a secondary field would open up the door to demands for similar equally deserving programs for studying other ethnic groups.

Instead of such programs existing in isolation, the University should create a broader program for those who wish to pursue secondary concentration in the study of ethnicities in America. Such a program, which could be overseen by the already-existing Committee on Ethnic Studies, would both be more efficient and put the study of specific ethnic-American groups in a broader academic context. The alternative, a broad array of narrowly focused ethnic studies programs or secondary concentrations could prove problematic on many fronts.

First, a proliferation of narrowly tailored secondary concentrations in, say, Jewish-American studies or Arab-American studies, could lead to an unnecessary balkanization of academic disciplines. The experiences of ethnic minorities in America have much in common, and students of different ethnicities in America could learn much from each other’s theoretical, analytical, and historical insights. Several scattered programs with only a few relevant courses each would be unlikely to encourage such dialogue.

While it is true that African-American studies has its own department, its many faculty members and extensive course offerings are what make it a viable and self-sufficient program. On the other hand, faculty and course offerings in Asian American studies or any similar discipline are likely to remain thin for some time. A unified secondary concentration in Ethnic Studies would help solve this problem, allowing students to combine three or four courses on a single ethnic group with one or two courses on another (including in the Department of African and African-American Studies). Such an approach would go a long way toward contextualizing the unique histories and cultures of individual ethnic groups for students pursuing the secondary concentration.

But perhaps most importantly, we are concerned about the bureaucratic nightmare that is sure to result from a scattering of secondary concentrations on individual ethnic groups in America. A unified secondary concentration would make for unified paperwork, unified requirements, and unified administration. It would also make it easy for a student to study an ethnic group that has not already been cleared to have its own secondary field. Given that it has taken almost 20 years for Harvard to do anything about the demand for Asian-American studies, our hope is that a program in ethnic studies could establish a streamlined infrastructure for the creation of additional courses (and hiring of additional faculty) focused on minority ethnicities in America.

The Committee on Ethnic Studies is the body currently responsible for recruiting “visitors who offer courses in Native American, U.S. Latino, and Asian American studies.” The adoption of secondary concentrations gives the Committee an opportunity to do far more for ethnic studies than ever before. If it is serious about promoting ethnic studies at Harvard, it should begin right away to push for its own secondary concentration, which would assume responsibility for the College’s nascent course offerings in Asian American, Latino, and Native American studies.

Lastly, given that Asian Americans represent about a fifth of all Harvard undergraduates, Asian-American studies is not only an important field of inquiry in and of itself, but is also especially relevant to the Harvard community. We understand, however, the reticence of the administration to open the door to dozens of analogous programs, each one a “tub on its own bottom.” In order to neutralize this concern—and make the case for the importance of studying ethnic minorities in general—advocates should turn toward an even broader goal: a secondary concentration in ethnic studies.

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