Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:
It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.
Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.
Perhaps the University of Michigan—and other prominent schools—should go further, however, and eliminate race and ethnic studies courses altogether, at least at the undergraduate level, because they are hopelessly narrow and deny students the broader base and context they would need to address race and ethnicity in a serious way. There is nothing wrong with African-American history, Latino studies, or gay studies, but they are by definition compartmentalized, more suited for a final thesis project or a Ph.D. concentration than the broader base a bachelor’s degree should afford. To use an area studies metaphor, limiting oneself to any specific ethnic group in the context of U.S. history is akin to studying Jordanian or Palestinian history without studying Islam, Christianity, broader Arab history and, for that matter, Ottoman history and Iran. Or, perhaps in the world of medicine, the analogy would be to studying gynecology without studying physiology, anatomy, or chemistry.
Perhaps the students taking race and ethnicity courses believe that U.S. history isn’t adequately reflective of their own experience, but embracing a willful ignorance of broader American history isn’t the way to further either knowledge or citizenship, nor is it the way to acquire the perspective to understand the difference in importance between Cesar Chavez and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This does not mean minorities or women should be ignored in history. But certainly social history classes and, where appropriate, political or diplomatic history classes as well, might incorporate them.
Ethnic studies do a disservice to many of those immersing themselves because it promotes intellectual ghettoization to the detriment of education. And while feminist theory, gender theory, and racial theories might sound good in narrow academic jargon, too often they become a cover to supplant research with politics. Simply put, theory is for people who don’t have libraries. Two cheers for the Black Student Union at Michigan for starting a debate. But now that debate is opened, perhaps it can be pursued to the opposite conclusion, one that prioritizes educational rigor over politics and inclusiveness over separation.