Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Value of Ethnic Studies

As if Arizona had not done enough with it's anti-immigrant law has now passed another law making it illegal to teach ethnic studies. African American Studies and especially Latino/a Studies are impermissible because giving attention to the lived experiences of minorities and the social structures that help shape those experiences is tantamount to being "taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people" where those others, of course, are white, straight, Christian Americans. We need to only see people as individuals, they argue. By outlawing such intellectual inquiries they are actually preventing bigotry, you see, because racism requires the notion of race and if we never admit there is such a concept, there could be no more racism, at least not towards the white, straight, Christian Americans who -- especially in Arizona -- would never dream of being racist themselves. They don't see race in Arizona. It never even occurred to them before that some of the people living among them were Latino/a.

So, the question is, then, what are the values of ethnic studies programs? Because such programs are inherently interdisciplinary, it seems that they contribute in five basic ways:

Literary value: Every culture has a body of writing and what words mean is contextual. To understand what an author is really saying requires an understanding of the audience he is speaking to and his/her background that led him/her to use those words in that way. This means that one who does not understand Soviet times could not fully appreciate Solzhenitzen, one who knows nothing of Victorian England can not fully appreciate Dickens, and one who does not fully understand South American culture of the 20th century will not see all there is to see in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. the same is true with non-verbal forms of art. If we want to fully comprehend the art of a set of interconnected cultures, we need to understand the cultures.

Historical value: History is made up of narratives, the dots of events connected by lines drawn by historians and the broader culture. It is cliche to say that the victors write the history, but it is true. The meaning we inherit attached to events come from the cultural constructs of the powerful. Ethnic studies challenge those narratives, by providing counter-narratives, other sides and parts of the story that were conveniently left out of the usual approach to history. This, in part, is what scares conservatives, because when the full story is told, the white, straight, Christian Americans do not always come out looking very good. In the name of anti-racism, they are trying to protect their historical dirty laundry from ever being aired.

Anthropological value: The move to seeing us all as individuals is slimy because couched in pseudo-ethical terms is a denial of a basic truth of the world -- there are cultures. We have grouped ourselves in various ways and these groupings have given rise to different ways of life. Any phenomenon deserves to be studied scientifically. Cultures exist and anthropologists should be able to document what they are in a given place at a given time.

Sociological value: Cultures have institutions, norms, and means of enforcing those norms. Examining these aspects of culture in multiple cultures and what happens when cultures mix and interact gives insight into the ways humans organize.

Political value: Misunderstanding other cultures gives rise to misinterpretation of political actions and statements and this misunderstanding can cause unwise policies to become unwise laws -- not that such a thing would ever happen in Arizona. They way towards understanding and more moral laws is study and that study requires scholars and teachers, exactly what ethnic studies programs provide.

Those are my five. Other values in ethnic studies?