ZELINSKY: ER&M’s got problems

On Point

Last week, Yale got a new major: Ethnicity, Race and Migration. It was already a possible double major, but students now can take ER&M as their sole course of study. This development should raise eyebrows for several reasons, some of which the department may be able to address.

One: ER&M could continue the troubling trend toward political bias in the classroom. If so, the major would find its place alongside WGSS, Judaic studies and other special interest departments that conflate politics and academics. Taught by liberal faculty who do not always separate their views from their teaching, these majors cheapen our community’s commitment to academic neutrality.

Here, my analysis will receive the expected knee-jerk criticism. But we cannot pretend the emperor has no clothes. Students with dissenting viewpoints often find that only approved opinions are tolerated within particular majors’ seminars and sections. Sadly, many of these classes examine important issues from which students of all stripes could benefit. But not all feel (or are) welcome.

Thus, as ER&M expands its course offerings, the department must craft its curriculum in order to prevent ideological pigeonholing.

Two: Similarly, ER&M may attract a specific set of students with preconceived worldviews. These Yalies will likely find their outlooks unchallenged and even reinforced by the ideas they encounter. It sounds trite, but college should be a place to encounter different perspectives, not reinforce existing ones. Students who grapple with topics or ideas outside of their comfort zone grow intellectually and morally. Creating an academic echo chamber stifles this important educational goal.

Three: ER&M becomes Yale’s 78th standalone major, further balkanizing the faculty into discrete groups. The proliferation of departments leads to turf wars, unnecessary administrative overhead and less cohesion among professors. While ER&M faculty may continue to affiliate with other departments such as political science or history, they should resist the temptation to exclude themselves from the broader Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Unfortunately, the department has already moved into its own location at 35 Broadway, suggesting that the trend toward compartmentalization will only continue.

Four: Like other themed majors, ER&M encourages undergraduates to hyperspecialize in a particular field. While the movement of peoples — devoid of political overtones, if that’s possible — may be a worthy topic of study, it seems an inappropriate tool for general education. Even many graduate students concentrate on broader fields. When Yale encourages focused majors, we fail to provide students with a liberal arts education. Instead, we teach them highly specific material at the expense of a broad academic background.

Five: Potentially minute majors like ER&M often create learning environments in which students encounter the same few peers in a majority of their classes. Admittedly, such a scenario is better than oversized departments in which students fall through the cracks (for example, political science). Still, underpopulated majors foster their own set of downsides. Imagine having that one section jerk in every seminar or rehashing similar debates with the same peers course after course. As much as a diversity of viewpoints leads to a better classroom culture (see point two), a multiplicity of personalities exposes students to different ways of thinking, different skill sets and different classroom dynamics.

These five concerns constitute a jumping-off point for a broader conversation. Over the next few years, our community should hold ER&M (and similar majors) to account by subjecting them to these and other rigorous standards. The result may be politically unpalatable — it will require us to openly confront truths about our own biases. But doing any less jeopardizes our core values.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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