Why Harvard Should Offer an Ethnic Studies Concentration

Barker Center

As a Harvard student, I am part of Harvard’s second consecutive majority nonwhite admitted class, and greatly appreciate the diversity of my friends, peers, and teachers. I believe that a multicultural Harvard broadens its students’ perspectives and results in alumni who are better prepared for life and leadership in an increasingly diverse America. However, all of my learning about Harvard students’ cultures and ways of life has occurred outside the classroom — Harvard currently offers 50 concentrations, of which only African and African American Studies explicitly allows for the study of ethnic experience in the United States. In a rapidly changing America, it is crucial that Harvard gives its students the opportunity to learn about the ways in which the experiences of their peers intersect and interact in an academic space — it is time for Harvard to offer a concentration in ethnic studies.

A concentration in ethnic studies would offer departmental support and invaluable resources for students to better understand the diverse experiences of their fellow citizens and classmates and would make them better leaders for tomorrow’s America. While there is debate over the precise definition of ethnic studies, the field generally concerns the study of the intersection of ethnic experiences. In today’s America, understanding these cultural mixings is fundamental to understanding American culture as a whole — as debates rage over who is entitled to sell ethnic cuisine, wear culturally significant attire, or even identify as a member of a given race, the dialogue surrounding these issues and the conclusions that this nation comes to will inevitably be shaped by academia. Consider the steps being taken by Harvard’s academic rivals: Yale offers a major in Ethnicity, Rights, and Migration, and has established a center dedicated for Ethnic Studies work, Stanford offers a major in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Columbia offers an Ethnicity and Race Studies major — the list goes on. By not offering an ethnic studies concentration, Harvard will inevitably cost itself faculty and students passionate about the field and lag more and more in the national conversation.

While Harvard recently added a track in ethnic studies under the History and Literature concentration last year and offers the Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights secondary track, these measures fall far short of the previously mentioned offerings of other comparable educational institutions and do not achieve nearly as much as a full department would. Without full, tenured positions in ethnic studies, the most qualified faculty in the field would necessarily sacrifice both compensation and security to come to Harvard. A lack of quality faculty means a shortage of classes and an inability to serve students who have an interest in taking ethnic studies classes or those who are interested in pursuing the concentration. Neither a specialized track under a concentration nor the existence of a comparable secondary addresses these infrastructural issues that currently stand in the way of students who are interested in ethnic studies.

The fight for ethnic studies at Harvard is not a new one — students have been trying for more than 40 years to make ethnic studies a reality at Harvard. However, there has never been a more pressing need for thoughtful conversations about ethnic studies. Most Americans agree that racism is still a major problem, but our politics and dialogue are becoming increasingly polarized. As a result, the question remains — what can Harvard students do to make ethnic studies at Harvard a reality? The options are many — support or join one of the many organizations on campus in dialogue with campus officials to make ethnic studies a full concentration or at least ensure that ethnic studies are a priority at Harvard. Groups like Harvard TAPAS work to bring qualified faculty to campus and offer educational programming. Taking ethnic studies classes also attests to the value and necessity of qualified faculty; supporting ethnic studies need not mean dedicating an entire academic career to the field. At a school with as many intelligent minds and vast resources such as Harvard, the potential advancements in ethnic studies are nearly limitless. All that remains is for that potential to be made a possibility.


David J. Moon ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Eliot House.


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