Inside Higher Ed reporter Lindsay McKenzie asks, “Is It Time for All Students to Take Ethnic Studies?”


The discipline of ethnic studies, as McKenzie reports, emerged in the late 1960s in response to student strikes. As that origin suggests, it is not simply a field in which students learn about American ethnic groups’ rich histories or discuss hard questions about those groups’ experiences in the United States. Rather, it’s a political project.

Consider Paola Bacchetta of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC-Berkeley, speaking (behind a paywall) to commemorate the “Third World Strike,” a major event in the development of ethnic studies. Concerning the relationship between the university and activism, she affirms that, for “many of us, these two realms are inseparable.”

Bacchetta studies “right-wing movements to better take them apart.” By contrast, she studies left-wing movements, “feminist, queer, and trans of color movements against colonialism and coloniality, capitalism, sexism, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism, and speciesism,” in order to make a contribution, “no matter how small, to radical projects for the transformation of relations of power and a new reorganization of life.”

The ethnic studies movement brings together left-wing “scholar-activists” seeking to advance left-wing causes. Not every ethnic studies scholar is on the same page as Bacchetta, but her understanding of ethnic studies is widely shared.

Even the most progressive universities are supposedly impediments to the advancement of that project. As Bacchetta writes, “The university is still a colonial, capitalist, neo-liberal, white and cisgender male heterosexual dominated site.” Even Berkeley, which has established administrative wings and academic programs dedicated to “diversity,” is really just trying to “coopt and to substitute [for] the more radical departments and projects.”

The university benefits from the presence of dissenters. Higher education can afford to house scholars who plot revolution during sherry hour. But the idea that entire student bodies should be captive audiences for them is outrageous.

Unfortunately, this movement is on the march. The California State University system, which enrolls nearly 500,000 students, recently implemented a system-wide ethnic studies requirement. Initially, the board of trustees passed a proposal that would have allowed students to take various courses with a “social justice” component. Under the requirement, which the legislature jammed down CSU’s throat, only courses within the disciplines of Native American studies, African-American studies, Asian-American studies, or Latina and Latino studies” count. That is to say, the legislature imposed the leftmost core requirement available.

Governor Newsom vetoed a bill to require ethnic studies at California high schools amid disagreements about the model curriculum. Among other things, Jewish groups have criticized multiple drafts for minimizing or even fostering anti-Semitism. However, that may be, academic associations under the ethnic studies umbrella, including the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association have endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. There was even a BDS unit in the first draft of the model curriculum. That unit has since been removed, but it was useful to help everyone understand the enterprise’s spirit.

If one is disgusted by these developments, one can at least admire ethnic studies professors’ savvy. Academic jobs are hard to find, and ethnic studies, which awarded about eight thousand of the nearly two million undergraduate degrees conferred in 2017-18, is not exactly a growth industry.

But what if everyone had to take a course in the field? Then the professorate could rail against predatory capitalism and get paid to do it.

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