A response to: "Studying the melting pot"
In some ways, this is a legitimate question. Programs like the Center for African American Studies and Latino American Studies stick out like sore thumbs in the departmentalized world of academia. They are too expansive to fit into a discipline and too specific for many — including columnist Spencer Shen ’16 — to see them as legitimate “departments.” Race studies reach across history, sociology, literature, visual arts, bioethics, psychology and international relations. But at its core, race studies give us the opportunity to narrate a history and culture, parallel to that of mainstream America, that students would otherwise never have a chance to see.
Shen’s view that race studies are an examination of “small swatches of history” is a product of the problematic way we teach high school history. The overgeneralized high school curriculum of AP U.S. History cannot do justice to every event that has shaped present-day America, and so, on the whole, students never learn about them. For example, we hear about 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson, but we don’t learn about 1927’s Gong Lum v. Rice, in which Asian-American children were officially declared “black” — or at least “not white” enough for white public schools — affirming states’ rights to define the term “colored.”
Second, race studies classes are so much more than just another “history” course. Although classes are often cross-listed, belonging to both race studies and American Studies, the nuances of each label are different. American Studies has a different focus and a different origin. Begun in 1942 as the “Program in American Civilization,” it was an effort to refamiliarize students with “the traditions” of America. While just as pertinent as race studies, the goals of this program seem more loose and open to exploration (the AMS website, in fact, claims that it is “a place for intense, adventurous and freewheeling interdisciplinary conversations and courses about American culture, politics and history”).
In comparison, the questions brought up by CAAS are more pointed. As quoted in the CAAS Initiative, President Tilghman asks students to confront and “understand the impact of race on the life and institutions of the United States.” This question, distinct and profound, sharply narrows the field of focus. CAAS asks students to consider the most pressing questions about race — how it is rooted in our beliefs, habits, hobbies, relationships and subconscious, as well as how it plays out in our education systems, immigration patterns, voting patterns, judicial systems, prison systems, crime patterns and drug policies. These are all things that all Americans, not just Princetonians, should care about — though not enough do since the race and ethnic narratives have been subsumed under the mainstream narrative.
On a separate level, there are practical reasons to want discrete programs for race studies. If a program is a subsidiary of a larger department, then there is potential for this program to be pushed down the priority ladder. American Studies, as broad and “freewheeling” as the curriculum might be, still has a commitment to reach a specific coverage of the American tradition. Programs such as CAAS, LAS and — hopefully soon — Asian-American Studies are an institutional promise that a specific dialogue about these issues will continue into the future. It ensures that courses are offered every semester in those respective concentrations.
Moreover, having separate (though interlinked) departments guarantees that faculty members who have backgrounds in those specialties are hired. These faculty members go on to design courses, attract new hires, research and talk with students and other faculty — all of which shape Princeton’s intellectual community. To leave out Latino courses or Asian-American courses for a year, or even a semester, is tantamount to shutting down a large part of the intellectual dialogue. Without these programs, the hiring of faculty and creation of courses could be put off to a later date — or postponed to never — and, when it comes to race, procrastination can be a very bad thing.
Other schools agree. Although Harvard groups African and African-American Studies into one department, its conservative model is unlike the ones touted by the rest of the Ivy League and other peer institutions. Columbia has flourishing African-American Studies, Asian-American Studies and Latin-American Studies programs. Cornell, while grouping African, African-American and African-Caribbean Studies together, still maintains this program independently of Latino, Asian-American and American Studies, as does Penn. Duke’s African-American Studies and Latino Studies programs are good examples, with the latter having recently been upgraded to an independent program. Dartmouth also has independent, strong African-American, Latino American and Asian-American Studies programs. The list goes on.
The clear trend in academics is not to combine fields under a gross umbrella term but rather to make distinct race studies fields. I wholly support drawing a distinction between American Studies and other ethnic studies, and I applaud the Center for African American Studies and the Latino Studies program for the institutions that they have become. Keep on keepin’ on.
Linda Zhong is a sophomore from Basking Ridge, N.J. She is co-president of the Asian American Student Association.
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