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August 8, 2008

studying discrimination

I've come across a fine small college with this requirement: "The race and ethnic studies requirement assesses the systematic discrimination and exploitation of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans that have figured so critically in the history of this country. This requirement is met by taking one course that focuses primarily on one or more of these four groups in the United States."

I'm glad when students study the history and cultural contributions of minority groups in the United States. I'm not so happy when the lens with which we study their contributions is discrimination and exploitation. The injustice has been very severe (taking the form, indeed, of mass murder as well as mere "discrimination"). But to study a topic like African American literature to satisfy a requirement related to injustice seems to make the authors into victims rather than creators and leaders.

Furthermore, this requirement is somewhat parochial. If the issue is discrimination and exploitation, there are many cases to pick from that lie outside of the borders of the US or that involve class, religion, and ideology rather than race/ethnicity. Probably, however, the motive behind this requirement is what I would call "civic." In other words, graduates of this college are expected to become active members of the United States as a political community (voters, advocates, volunteers); and the college is especially eager that citizens reflect on racial discrimination.

I too want American citizens to understand discrimination. But I also want them to understand voting, alternative forms of civic participation, the rights and powers they have under the Constitution, real and possible political institutions, and mechanisms of social change. Surveys typically find very low levels of such knowledge even among students at selective universities. Thus I'd only support a requirement to study discrimination as part of a civics curriculum if students also had to study democracy, citizenship, and law.

I find myself falling between the ideological stools here. I'm more enthusiastic about racial and ethnic diversity than most conservatives are (although I see such diversity as an asset, not just as a stimulus to guilt). At the same time, I'm less inclined than most campus lefties to emphasize discrimination as the essence of civic education.

August 8, 2008 9:53 AM | category: academia | Comments


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