When I ducked out of my 8 a.m. class at Morrison Hall because of a scratchy throat, I visited the first floor kitchenette and encountered a bulletin board with the photos of the recent concentrators in the African American Studies (AAS) department. Amid the collage of portraits, I was surprised to see how few non-Black graduates there were. When I returned to my class on racialized housing development, a classmate of mine made a memorable comment on our reading about the history of segregated housing: “I wish that anyone who doesn’t understand systemic oppression could read just a couple of pages of this book.”
Taking African American studies classes both at Princeton and before has, unsurprisingly, taught me many things about African American history — but it has also taught me an unfathomable amount about American politics, culture, and society in general. If a few pages of a book on housing discrimination was so transformative that it elevated someone’s entire understanding of systemic oppression, isn’t it a good investment for every student — Black or not — to pursue at least some education in the discipline? Though not pursued by most, Princeton’s African American Studies department is designed for everybody, and it equips all who partake in it with the critical skill set Princeton intends to instill in all of its graduates: a commitment and ability to serve humanity, regardless of chosen profession.
On campuses across the United States, African American Studies is dying: the total number of AAS degrees awarded in 2021 declined by 5.6 percent compared to the year prior. Why? In part, it is because “return on investment” has taken precedence over a degree’s intellectual merit. “Higher education [is] being pushed to demonstrate a kind of economic value,” says Jane Rhodes, chair of AAS at the University of Illinois Chicago. “In my point of view, that’s deeply anti-intellectual and that flies against the face of what a college education is supposed to do.” Rhodes is right — the primary purpose of higher education should be education itself, not the financial return that it can generate.
That is not to suggest that financial prospects are not important, but that the academic merit of degrees should not be wholly abandoned. But even from an economic perspective, the average income of an AAS graduate is comparable to the incomes of graduates with more popular majors like business or psychology.
So if a degree in AAS is a good economic investment, why aren’t more Princeton students — especially non-Black students — majoring or minoring in it? Beyond the calculus of economic returns, AAS suffers from the notion that its program is reserved exclusively for those who are directly or personally impacted by the content covered. But the aims of the AAS program are exactly the opposite: “Black life is so important in American politics, culture, and history, that in order to really be conversant [about] those things, you have to know something about [African American Studies] ... [but] it is still treated as an outlier in schools as a ‘specialized’ area of study,” said Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton’s AAS department in my conversations with her. “[AAS] was founded on the assumption that the study of African American history and culture, and of the role that race has played in shaping the life and the institutions of the United States, is central to an American liberal education,” reads the department’s program description. If both the AAS program description and professors have the intentions of teaching students the ability to grapple with American “life” and “institutions” — as opposed to isolated facts about a specific demographic — it logically follows that the department has a foundational purpose to educate everyone interested in said liberal aims.
Instead of conceiving of AAS as a department only for Black students to learn about their history, we should recognize that studying African American history and culture enables Princeton students to learn to engage with their own and others’ humanity. African American Studies not only familiarizes us to the pain and suffering involved in American racial history, but also the art, beauty, and joy of a distinct and culturally rich demographic. What better way is there to become more humanistic — and in turn, “serve humanity” — than to deeply engage with both the joys and sufferings of communities that aren’t your own?
We learn what it means to be more caring, compassionate, and comprehensive through seeing how others have embodied these characteristics throughout history. In turn, we adopt these characteristics into our own lives and are therefore more prepared for a variety of personal and professional challenges. For a non-Black Computer Science major, for example, you may think there is little value in pursuing African American Studies, but having a strong understanding of race and racial history could, for instance, allow you to better understand how robotic systems and AI can emulate human racial biases. Studying AAS can make you a more humanistic, more empathetic computer scientist, librarian, or analyst, better prepared to understand the social implications of your field of study — a skill transferable to various avenues for employment.
AAS is a valuable pursuit for everyone. The department offers a unique perspective on American history, current politics, and social life that is important and informative for everyone. The critical thinking and systemic analysis skills that one learns in AAS classes are useful for life across the board. As spring class registration begins, recall that serving humanity can start — if you so choose — with one AAS course at a time.
Siyeon Lee (she/her) is a first-year from Seoul, South Korea intending to major in Comparative Literature or History. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.