Yale’s ethnic studies crisis goes beyond the Ethnicity, Race and Migration program — it’s indicative of academia’s broader failure to take non-Western perspectives seriously.
If Yale isn’t sincerely committed to serving its multiple special “studies” programs, then it should dissolve and fully integrate them into traditional academic disciplines. Obviously this isn’t the hope, but it might be the only way to save the humanities from neglect. More importantly, it will prevent the University from using ER&M as a surrogate for incorporating ethnic studies into other departments.
There is a simple argument for why ER&M should be properly supported at Yale: The University should either eliminate all interdisciplinary majors (including Ethics, Politics and Economics and Global Affairs) or treat them equally. As it stands, however, University President Peter Salovey has bolstered the feckless promises of former President Levin and let ER&M float in the murky waters between a full-fledged “program,” like Humanities and American Studies, and an interdisciplinary major (confusingly also called a “program”), like EP&E and Global Affairs.
ER&M is officially listed in the 2018 Faculty Handbook as a program on par with the others, but fails to show up on Yale’s official website for academic departments and programs. In fact, Yale’s Office of Institutional Research doesn’t even list ER&M on the “Faculty Headcounts” report for the 2018–19 academic year — because it officially has none. Unlike specialty majors such as EP&E and Global Affairs, ER&M is not a small, application-based major that gives students the privilege of preregistering for courses in multiple established departments at Yale. By definition, then, it has neither the status nor the prestige of the competitive majors, nor the institutional support of “programs,” properly understood. Ethnic studies instead serves as a catch-all symbol for Yale’s continued dedication to non-Western teaching.
But that’s far from what the field purports to be. The existence of ER&M shouldn’t give departments like philosophy, for instance, a pass on engaging with rich global traditions of thought outside of Western Europe. Nor should it allow History or Political Science to accomplish all of their “global” engagement through race-centered scholarship that largely operates through the confusing theories of white post-modernists. Full-fledged support for non-Western work at Yale should follow the example of scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73, a pioneer in African American Studies at Harvard (who was unsurprisingly denied tenure at Yale). Gates didn’t simply develop the field to pay lip service to racial injustice, but actively sought out rich traditions of African thought to fill in civilization-spanning gaps in historical, literary and philosophical understandings of the world.
There have been several great attempts to do this sort of work at Yale, but they are far from enough. “American Imagination,” a recent course offering in Humanities, did an excellent job of integrating African-American and female voices into its “canon” without tokenizing or giving them second-class status. The writings of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass and Jean Toomer aren’t just important because of who they represent; they’re intellectual tour-de-forces in any sense of the term.
Another excellent example is “The Chinese Tradition,” a class in East Asian Languages and Literature that offers a multidisciplinary canonical overview to Chinese Thought, similar to what Directed Studies does for the West. But when I took the course, fewer than 20 students enrolled. The truth is, huge swathes of traditional philosophy, literature and political thought from Africa, Latin America and Asia have received little to no institutional support at universities across America. It’s no surprise that Yale’s recently created “Tibet: An Enduring Civilization” course would struggle to find faculty sponsors, only to be taught by an untraditional faculty member like Charles Hill who still relies on the heavy Western gaze of Plato as a lens into other worlds.
Ethnic studies shouldn’t just be nominally supported at Yale; it should be expanded and respected enough to participate in pre-established schools of thought. Rather than reject “canonization” outright, why not legitimize cultures that have been ignored and open up our narrow American worldviews beyond our contemporary moment? It’s obvious why STEM has taken the spotlight in education — humanities at the undergraduate level has already been subdivided into far too many degrees of irrelevance.
For now, however, it’s clear that the recent protests by 13 ER&M senior faculty are entirely in order and deserve a thoughtful response from Salovey. Even if he disagrees with the departing professors’ intentions or student support for their withdrawals, he should voice his disagreement directly and lead a community conversation on the need to clarify the increasingly obscure status of a humanities education at Yale.
That Yale thinks it can support a “global” education by throwing money at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs while letting ER&M bear a burden that it wasn’t created to solve shows how little respect there actually is for ethnic studies today. Thousands of years of “global affairs” have been ignored through academia’s ceaseless navel-gazing — this is one tradition that Yale can do without.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .