With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Remaking Ethnic Studies

Across the nation, students are making it clear to their universities that the curriculum they are learning every day is insufficient for the 21st century. Recognizing a rift between the words written on a chalkboard and the society that lies outside the classroom door, these students are increasingly pushing for a course of study that allows them to learn about traditionally underrepresented figures and reckon with concepts of oppression and justice. For this, they look to ethnic studies. 

Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary field devoted to the examination of race and culture in U.S. history and contemporary society. It came to the fore with the growing racial consciousness that defined the 1960s. In 1968, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published a groundbreaking body of work called the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” charging traditional educational institutions with indoctrinating hierarchies of power within the classroom setting. That same year, one hemisphere over, a wave of youth and faculty at San Francisco State University initiated the Third World Liberation Front movement — it is historically unclear whether they had read Freire’s work, though they share the same thread of ideas — to advance the cause for ethnic studies. Soon, waves of students would be storming the campus of not only SFSU, but also the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, among others. These schools succeeded in developing a lasting pedagogical architecture for ethnic studies, paving the way for universities to do the same.

In the 21st century, the legacy of this effort has continued on in pockets of the United States, though ethnic studies programs vary greatly from university to university. In no two places has the discipline emerged in the same way — some schools have established separate departments and research facilities for ethnic studies, while others remain without a major. Harvard College is one of the latter. As we examine our own efforts to establish an ethnic studies department at Harvard, looking at the work other schools have already done to achieve the same goal can help. This comparison not only shows that Harvard is behind many of the other universities in the United States, but also offers pathways for Harvard ethnic studies advocates to follow. 

Read entire article at Harvard Political Review