The Best Ethnic Studies

Okay, so I’d heard of ethnic studies. My opinion is pretty much that given by Lisa Wong Macabasco in the start of her Slate article. To quote:

People tend to think ethnic studies classes are full of disgruntled brown people ranting about “the system,” “oppression,” and “white/male/class privilege.” A common response to saying you are an ethnic studies major goes something like “Oh, so you don’t care about having a job.”

As this is Slate, Ms. Macabasco “comes around,” essentially stating that she didn’t understand history until she took ethnic studies. Her examples, of the prejudice Asian Americans faced in America, isn’t a big revelation for even a casual student of US History, but I’m struck that Ms. Macabasco wasn’t aware of it. Not only is it well documented, but, if her family was here for any of these sad episodes, they would have had their own stories of these events. Yet Ms. Macabasco seemed surprised to learn of them.

I grew up enjoying my family’s stores, and the stories of neighbor’s families, and thought this was the norm. But while conducting interviews for college history projects, I discovered not everyone had this experience. There was an elderly neighbor who told of how his great uncle went up North and joined the USCT in the Civil War, and returned after the war. His grandchildren, who were in earshot, were astounded. They’d never heard that story. He replied “You weren’t interested.” Perhaps something similar happened in Ms. Macabaso’s family. Or perhaps they found some things uncomfortable and preferred not to discuss them.

There’s a similar “wall” in my own family history. Events like the Civil War were related as though they recent eventsy. Considering that a great-grandfather who ended the war in a POW camp died only a very short time before I was born, it practically was. But it becomes increasingly sketchy after that point. Oh, here were hints. One branch apparently knew Nancy Hart, who the Cherokee called “War Woman,” and passed along that she was cross-eyed. There was a wooden shoe carefully preserved, as it had been worn by an ancestor who came to America, only for it to be lost in a house fire. I’d come across that we’d dropped the “e” from the end of our name after the Revolutionary War because it sounded too British. That was about it. Why more family stories were never passed on might be the same reason that Ms. Macabasco apparently had none as well.

I was able to fill in some of the gaps. It still only went back to the 17th Century, which was interesting, but I can’t say it added to my understanding of history because, well, we used to be taught that information. That’s because what Ms. Macabasco touts as a benefit of ethnic studies is history. History is about what people did, and to understand it you have to know what they thought and experienced. You can reduce history to memorizing dates and events and call it history, but it’s not because it removes the people factor. That’s why I made it a point to pass along those stories those family stories, of family who came across concentration camps at the end of World War II; of those who saw Sherman’s March first hand; of a great-grandfather who made caskets as needed, which were lined by a grandmother, and my father who dug graves and poured vaults. That’s not only a tie to history; that is history.

One of the places where ethnic studies falter is while this might help to understand history and how it led to the present, it is not the present. As one irked group of teens put it, “Yes, it happened, but it didn’t happen to them.” That, as well as its focus on race is what gives ethnic studies it’s woo-woo reputation. And, if Ms. Macabasco had experienced properly taught history she wouldn’t have needed it.

Ms. Macabasco correctly observes that it pays to be skeptical of everything, including ethnic studies. What you learn depends on who you learn it from – and what they want you to know. At best you’ll find errors. At worst you run into outright propaganda. Skimming over some ethnic studies syllabi, there’s a curious absence of Cajun studies, or Irish, or Scot, or French Huguenots, or Jewish. Not what you’d expect if the goal is to study the ethnicity of all Americans. However, it’s precisely what you’d see if the goal was something else, which is the main reason ethnic studies has a woo-woo reputation. As Ms. Macabasco revealed immediately after her observation on healthy skepticism, she seems to have swallowed more of it than she realized. It’s easy to do, when a class is more indoctrination than substance.

Fortunately, there’s an antidote. It’s called primary sources. A look at original letters and documents removes any convenient filters. And primary sources includes family who lived through certain times and events. If you’ve never done so, listen to the stories they tell. If you have, listen to them again. Cherish these stories and pass them on, along with stores that you can tell. Not only will you be learning what people experienced, you’ll be better able to tell woo-woo from facts, and maybe learn things some didn’t want you to know.

If you want to take a course in ethnic studies, the one of the very best is right in your own family. All it takes is to ask “What was it like?” What you learn may surprise you.