Friday, February 04, 2005

"Creating History"

Here's an interesting article about San Francisco State's College of Ethnic Studies. You would expect ethnic studies to be the most peaceful, tolerant College on campus, right, seeing as how its dedicated to race awareness? Yeah, you'd be wrong. Money quote:

Some of these problems have persisted, in one form or another, through the four deans since Hirabayashi. When Almaguer took over, he says, the college was "very ethnically Balkanized, very separated, particularistic. Every group and department was only interested in themselves, what they were doing. There were lines of difference within all the units -- different Asian groups, different Latino groups -- but there was very little appreciation of the commonalities that people might have.

"And that's the irony: We embrace the ethnic categories -- black, Asian, Latino, Native American -- that are so inherently problematic. Clearly, race is a very problematic category in this country that is fraught with boundary problems. And so for ethnic studies to use this strategic essentialism, to basically invest in and valorize a certain identity -- that's a problem with an area of study that is so deeply rooted in identity."

The article also mentions the interesting origins of Ethnic Studies:

In November 1968, on an already tense campus, George Mason Murray, an English instructor and Black Panther minister of education, was suspended after allegedly encouraging black students to carry guns on campus as protection against racist administrators. Students protested, and just days later, led by the Black Students Union and the newly formed Third World Liberation Front, they went on strike.


It wasn't until March 1969, three months after the San Francisco State local of the American Federation of Teachers had joined the strike, that a settlement was reached. Assenting to the Third World Liberation Front's demand for a "School of Ethnic Studies for the ethnic groups involved in the Third World," the university established what would come to be the College of Ethnic Studies. The hope, at the onset, was that ethnic studies could correct the imbalances of America's Eurocentric academy -- that new perspectives could be taught from the inside out, says James Hirabayashi, the school's first dean.

The founding was inherently political--it was about appeasing a distraught constituency of the university:
Administrators have perhaps learned that lesson. Ross Frank, an associate professor in ethnic studies at UC San Diego, calls the creation of his own department in the 1980s "a rear-guard measure" by the university -- a sop to minorities to pre-empt any sort of unrest. "It's been a win-win situation," he says.

Ethnic Studies isn't about "learning." Instead, its the thoroughly postmodern endeavor of instilling the right ideology and polarizing a group for progressive action. Its a "Cultural Revolution" of sorts, in which technical skills and rational thinking are subordinate to championing the "right" ideas--ideas that are absolutist in their conception, and so any who might question them are automatically enemies.

The Western tradition wasn't conducive to the radical change that many desired--so they created a new history:
For one thing, the first generation of ethnic studies programs was divided along racial lines, with the curriculum focusing on single groups, rather than the collective experience of minorities. "It was about creating history," Frank says, "about communities and people whose histories had largely been erased from academia." [emphasis added]

This may have been more a slip of the tongue than a mission statement, but it nevertheless is true. In Robert Bork's "Slouching Toward Gomorrah" he writes:

A prominent Afrocentrist lectured at Wellesley, where Lefkowitz teaches, stating that Greek civilization was stolen from Egypt and that Egyptians were black. He claimed, among other things, that Aristotle stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria. During the question period, Lefkowitz asked the lecturer why he made that claim when the library had been built after Aristotle's death. His only answer was that he resented the tone of the question. Several students accused Lefkowitz of racism. Her colleagues, who knew that the lecturer was making historical misrepresentations, remained silent.

When Lefkowitz went to the dean of the college to point out that there was no evidence for some of what the Afrocentrists were teaching Wellesley students, the dean replied that each person has a different but equally valid view of history.

History is just a metanarrative that can be used as a tool by those that feel oppression in every facet of their life. By filling their heads with therapeutic, but ultimately useless, information they are perpetuating their underclass status, which they will in turn blame on 'racism.' Ralph Ellison, an African-American and author of Invisible Man, gave some prescient advice to people that might be enticed to retreat into racial literature and ideas for comfort:
I read Marx, Freud, T.S. Elliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. Books which seldom, if ever, mentioned Negroes were to release me from whatever 'segregated' idea I might have had of my human posibilities. I was freed not be propagandists...but by composers, novelists, and poets who spoke to me of more interesting and freer ways of life.
He also noted the need to seperate the arts from politics:
“I am a novelist, not an activist,” Ellison told John Corry in the New York Yimes interview. “But I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap."
I have no idea if the American Ethnic Studies classes at K-State are anything like those in San Francisco--in fact, I'm pretty sure they're much different. But I'd still wager that anything worth learning in them could be learned in another class, and that as an instrument for creating understanding and alleviating racial tensions they are largely counterproductive.


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