In honor of Black History Month, the Daily Nexus recently published a front-page article about the travails of African-American UCSB students fighting for a Black Studies Dept. in 1968 (“Barricading a Building, Building a Department: UCSB Black Studies Born Out of 1960s Radicalism,” Feb. 12). In Fall Quarter of 1969, the department was born, but its struggles, and those of similar departments soon to follow, had just begun. Ethnic- and gender-studies programs at UCSB were, and still are, criticized as being overly divisive and political. On the contrary, these institutions remain a vital part of this campus and remind us that we do not live a homogenous society.
Until recently, historical education in the United States was dominated by Thomas Carlisle’s “Great Man Theory” – the notion that all history has revolved around extraordinary individuals who drastically affected the course of civilization. As a result, American universities have stressed the development of Western Civilization and the activities of dead white men. This is not to say that courses in African, Chicano, Middle Eastern or Chinese history, society or religions were not available, but they were eclipsed under the shadow of larger departments. In the last half-century, however, the Black, Chicano, Asian American, Islamic and women’s studies departments and programs have broadened the quality of education on University of California campuses.
Critics, such as UC Regent Ward Connerly, have argued that ethnic and gender studies are too political and polarize campuses. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, the majority of students in the black studies major are white. Although plagued with inadequate financing and staffing in their early years, these departments are now receiving increased academic recognition and are expanding in enrollment. The Black Studies Dept. started with 83 students. Approximately 4,000 students now benefit annually from its educational opportunities.
Granted, such departments do have political agendas. They lobby for increased heterogeneity at the university; the Chicano studies department works closely with El Congreso, as the Black Studies Dept. does with the Black Student Union. But such activism is neither condemnable nor improper, and the focus of ethnic- and gender-studies programs remains that of providing information about culture, religion, music and history through classroom instruction and extracurricular events.
In a perfect world, it would be preferable to include ethnic- and gender-related courses under the more general disciplines – history, religious studies, sociology, etc. – and to see that each received an equitable share of attention. But such is not the case. The lower-division requirements for undergraduate history majors include one year of American history and one year of Western Civilization (read European history), but only one quarter of non-Western history.
One might enroll in a history or sociology course in an attempt to gain a better understanding of something outside of the Western realm, but depending on the professor, the attention devoted to the role of women or Chicanos, for example, may vary. Specialized ethnic- and gender-studies departments, on the other hand, offer more specific courses and less ambiguity about the material. The United States is a hegemonic power today, but the face of the world will change. The Cold War is over; China, the Middle East and Africa will be the global hot spots during the next century. Ethnic and gender studies are no longer tangential topics that ought to be restricted to a larger department; they are worthwhile endeavors in themselves.
America is a melting pot, and this is becoming more and more evident on a local level. Departments that focus on a specific gender or ethnic group do not fortify divisive lines; they break them down by reminding students that there are far more points of view than traditional education systems admit. Even if a student is persuaded to take just one ethnic- or gender-related course while attending UCSB, he or she will experience an invaluably different perspective. That can only be a good thing.