Shades of Gray
The debate over Scripps’ ethnic studies requirement
Many American colleges and universities used to require students to take a course surveying the history and culture of “Western civilization.” However, with the decline of eurocentric thinking in recent decades and the increasing importance of multiculturalism and diversity in higher education, this requirement has nearly disappeared. Instead, some institutions are now requiring courses that stress “non-Western” cultures, diversity, and multiculturalism.
The 5Cs clearly illustrate this trend. While none of the 5Cs require a “Western Civ” course, Pitzer students must fulfill an “interdisciplinary and intercultural exploration” graduation requirement, while Scripps students must take a “race and ethnic studies” course. A significant number of Scripps students hold strong and diverse opinions regarding this graduation requirement.
According to Scripps’s website, their “race and ethnic studies requirement assesses the systematic discrimination and exploitation of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans that have figured so critically in the history of this country.” Courses that fulfill this requirement include “Indigenous Peoples of the Americas,” “Asian American Religions,” “Latino Politics,” “Modern Black Fiction,” and “Race in U.S Urban/Suburban History.” These courses pull from multiple disciplines and can be taken at any of the 5Cs.
Students in favor of this requirement point out that race and ethnicity, today as in the past, are an important factor in all aspects of American life. Lia Tamminen SCR ‘12 shares this point of view, expressing that this is an “incredibly important requirement.” Carolyn Lasch SCR ‘15 agrees, explaining she believes that these courses help connect generally privileged students to the realities of the outside world. Other students find it essential to have knowledge of certain histories, vocabulary, and concepts in order to talk about race and ethnicity. Kelsey Poppe SCR ‘12 says it is important to “learn to talk about race in a productive way,” because there have been incidents in Scripps classes when a student or professor has said something inappropriate about race or ethnicity.
However, not all students believe that the race and ethnic studies requirement is necessary. Jenny Philips SCR ‘12 tried to opt out of this requirement, along with the gender and women’s studies requirement, because she found them “redundant.” She felt that her Core courses (Scripps students take a three semester interdisciplinary humanities sequence) and Writing 50 class (an elective intensive writing course that first year students must take) adequately covered these topics. In addition, Philips felt these courses to be burdensome since as a biology major, she has many requirements to complete. Shalina Omar SCR ‘15 agrees that it is “a little heavy handed” to force students to take these courses.
Some students support this requirement but feel that it needs to be updated and expanded. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested that some Middle Eastern studies courses should fulfill this requirement, since there is a history of systematic discrimination against Middle Eastern Americans, especially since 9/11. The anonymous student also argued that other groups, such as Jews, Italians, and Irish people, while no longer currently systematically discriminated against in this country, have been in the past, and should therefore fulfill the requirement.
When this student talked to Dean of Students Bekki Lee about wanting her Jewish-American literature course to count toward this requirement, Lee said she has heard other students complain about this requirement. In addition to Lee, Professor Roberto Pedace, Chair of the Race and Ethnic Studies Sub-Committee, is also well aware of the strong opinions that students possess regarding this requirement.
When explaining the absence of courses on Middle Eastern Americans to Pedace, he replied that this is “not the first time some students have raised concerns” about the requirement.
As with most issues regarding identity and academic requirements, this requirement can be a personal and controversial topic. For example, what determines if a group is systematically discriminated against? Are some groups more oppressed and discriminated against than others? Should these courses focus on any group that has been historically systematically discriminated against, or only on those that are currently? Should the requirement be broadened to be more like Pitzer’s requirement, which simply emphasizes learning about other cultures?
Most students at Scripps believe that the race and ethnic studies requirement is valuable, but some believe it needs to be updated. Another population of students finds the material redundant, not relevant to their major, or frustrating when dealing with Scripps’s extensive graduation requirements as a whole. It seems it is time for Scripps professors and students to have an open discussion about the history, purpose and future of the race and ethnic studies requirement.