Post Academic

Myths about Ethnic Studies, the Practice

Posted in Absurdities by Arnold Pan on May 21, 2010
Tags: , ,

I wanted to finish up the discussion on the Arizona Ethnic Studies ban by considering the state of Ethnic Studies in practice, as opposed to the way it’s imagined by the likes of AZ Superintendent Tom Horne and others who decry its mere existence.  The way the media portray Ethnic Studies and the conservative politicians try to make hay out of it would lead someone to assume that African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano Studies, along with Gender Studies and Queer Studies (as Gradland aptly points to in a comment), are some kind of brainwashing juggernaut that controls all Liberal Arts education.  For those of us working in those fields and familiar with the way the university works, that’s a big surprise to us!

Myth–Ethnic Studies is everywhere!: Really?  Honestly, I’d love to live in the intellectual world that Horne and Ethnic Studies detractors imagine, where Ethnic Studies is taught everywhere and holds such sway over students, informing them about, you know, “downer” histories of oppression that are actually not discussed so much.  As I mentioned in my first snarky post on the matter, Horne makes it appear like the Tucson public school district is some bastion of Ethnic Studies, where minority middle school and high school students all gather together in their ethnic cliques to take these radical electives.  OK, so I have no first-hand knowledge of Tucson public schools, but I’ve got to believe this description is overblown, especially when a Tucson public school official claims the law might only affect 3% of the districts 55,000 students.

More about the reality of Ethnic Studies in practice, below the fold…

But, based on my own experience, Ethnic Studies programs at the university level are usually the last ones to be institutionalized and usually the first ones to be hit by budget cuts.  Sure, usually there is a breadth requirement for students to take a diversity oriented offering, but they can usually get away with taking a minimal number of such courses, so you wonder just how much influence the specter of Ethnic Studies has in the larger scheme of things.  Definitely, the intensity with which those working in Ethnic Studies teach and pursue their research might appear to be at a higher pitch, but it has to be, when you’re doing everything you can to justify your and your program’s existence to a skeptical institution.  So, as someone who works in Ethnic Studies and promotes its mission, I just think that it’s being used as a straw man by the anti-everything types who look to dispense with Ethnic Studies because just marginalizing it wouldn’t be enough.  Which brings me to my next point…

Myth–Ethnic Studies is “separatist”: I think Horne says in the CNN interview that his one of his objections to Ethnic Studies is separatist.  Well, what he describes as separatist, I’d describe, as I do above, as marginalized.  Of course, the history of Ethnic Studies traces back to the Black Power movement and related ethnically defined organizations during the late 1960s seeking recognition from institutions that shut them out.  And certainly, the legacy of such protest movements carries on in the present.

But structurally speaking, it’s the institutional apparatuses within universities that tend to marginalize Ethnic Studies.  So even if you’d like to take Horne’s word that the AZ law wants to promote Chicano literature and history, along with the other “downer” minority cultures, as part of a holistic study of capital-E English and capital-H History, I’m not really sure it works that way.  The one department I’m very familiar with can’t always offer minority lit courses with regularity because they don’t have enough faculty to staff them, so they will farm out these offerings to the Ethnic Studies programs or adjuncts.  Which is great, because those options are great, but let’s not jump to the conclusion that ethnic lit and culture are always so woven into the fabric of a typical curriculum, even within institutions that might even be sympathetic to these areas of inquiry.

Maybe it’s not the greatest idea on my part to generalize from my own experiences, since I’m sure there are places that are better off than the example I’ve given.  Then again, there are also institutions where the situation for Ethnic Studies is worse off, too.  In any case, I’d love for the media-hyped straw-man world of Ethnic Studies being a menacing, pervasive force bending the educational system and the minds of present and future generations of students to its will.  And folks think academics are the only ones living in their heads!

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