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More Crucial Than Ever

Today's climate demands the inclusion of ethnic studies throughout higher education, argues Elwood Watson, who disputes the naysayers' routine criticisms of the field.

July 13, 2020
 
 
istock.com/lyubov Ivanova

Over the past several months, there have been numerous discussions surrounding the issue of race in America and COVID-19. Both topics have been at the forefront of public discourse. Notably, despite all the attention given to online teaching, potential teaching loads, budget restrictions, free speech and the issue of race itself as it relates to higher education, not as much discussion has been devoted to the impact of ethnic studies within the current academic environment.

Ethnic studies courses have often been at the fringes of academe. Indeed, some colleges and universities teach precious few, if any, courses covering African American studies, Latino/a American studies, Asian studies, women's and gender studies, LGBTQ studies, and similar disciplines. Since the late 1960s, when San Francisco State University established the first ethnic studies department after months of student protests, the past half century has witnessed the ebb and flow of such departments and programs, largely depending on the contemporary political, social and cultural climate dominating society.

The perennial issues that routinely plague such units, such as reluctant institutional commitment, chronic lack of funding, resistant and apprehensive students, and perceptions of unhinged radicalism among the faculty and students involved in the discipline, are undeniable. As a professor who teaches ethnic studies with a focus on African American studies, I am aware of the routine criticisms associated with the field. They tend to be as follows.

The discipline lacks sufficient academic rigor. This inaccurate message has been put forth, either subtly or in no uncertain terms, by right-wing cultural critics -- and a few left-of-center faux liberal ones -- and even by some critics in academe. As any sensible person knows, such a belief is nonsensical, misguided, unfounded and wrong. Indeed, ethnic studies has been, and still is, the epitome of interdisciplinary studies and scholarship, long before the term “interdisciplinary” became a buzzword in higher education.

Scholars who teach ethnic studies are radical and angry, and they harbor an antiwhite agenda. While such charges could apply to a few professors, the vast majority of ethnic studies scholars do have not such a mind-set. In fact, many of them are very inclusive in the materials and assignments they employ in their courses and scholarship -- much more, in fact, than most other disciplines. Moreover, in all academic fields, from the humanities to the hard sciences, some faculty members pursue a personal agenda.

What can you do with a degree in ethnic studies? Many of us who are scholars in the field have heard someone (frequently another person of color but often a white person, too) question the practicality of earning a degree in ethnic studies. I even heard this argument from some of my relatives when I was an undergraduate student. Guess what? A number of years later, they can see the results. I, indeed, have a successful career with such a degree. Many other people have done well, too. Elementary and secondary education, urban planning, diversity training, consulting, politics, higher education, journalism, public relations, health care, and government work are a few of the employment possibilities available to students who major in the discipline.

I am a person of color or a member of an indigenous group and don’t need to either take courses or major in ethnic studies. Many students of color assume that because they are members of a minority population, they needn’t “waste their time” in taking such courses or majoring in a field that they believe they are an expert in. They are wrong on a multitude of levels. Being Black, a woman, gay, or nonwhite Hispanic, Native American, etc., does not make one an expert in Black, women’s, LGBTQ, Latino/a or Indigenous scholarship. This is akin to someone stating that they are an expert in agrarian economics or agriculture because they grew up in a rural area or on a farm. Not at all.

I’ve also found that faculty of color can be unwitting enablers and critics of ethnic studies. More than a decade ago, I attended an academic conference in a Midwestern city. I took part in a conversation with several other 30ish and early-40ish Black academics about our respective institutions, families, scholarship, career goals and so forth. The conversation eventually moved on to ethnic studies. Two of the academics attempted to make the same antiquated argument that the discipline was, in essence, subpar.

This set off a spirited, yet civil, debate among most of us in attendance. The vast majority were proponents of ethnic studies for practical, logical, defensible and obvious reasons. However, some of my fellow colleagues were dismissive or, at the very least, ambivalent about the discipline. While I am well aware that no group of people united by race, ethnicity or religion is monolithic, I did assume that well-educated people who, no doubt, had experienced some degree of racial or gender adversity in their lives would be more proactive and progressive in their thinking. In fact, anyone who lived in the United States of America before the mid- to late 1980s would have been exposed to some level of racial animosity on some level. The fact that these were educated academics of color made this experience even more disheartening, although not despairing or dehumanizing.

The undisputed fact is that -- despite the reduced budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, supposedly, a declining student population -- students of color are projected to become the majority in many higher education institutions within the next decade or sooner. The current political, social and cultural climate calls for -- in fact, demands -- the inclusion of ethnic studies programs across disciplines and departments throughout higher education. Fierce resistance from right-wing politicians, state legislatures and a few other conservative segments of society notwithstanding, such programs and departments are, without question, more important now than ever.

Bio

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African American studies and gender studies​ at East Tennessee State University and author of Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press).

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