By Matthew Stieglitz
This piece was inspired by a comment on my last blog post about abolishing Chicano Studies departments because “they doom aspiring minorities to a lifetime of poverty.” It reminded of the time-honored American tradition of emphasizing the necessity and superiority of certain fields over others. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t slam the sciences or business while the line frowning upon ethnic studies goes down the street and around the corner. This often times is exemplified by employers who see a resume come across their desk with Women’s Studies or Latino Studies at the top, causing the following Q&A: “What exactly did this person learn? What did they do? I bet they learned to hate men (Women’s Studies) or white people (ethnic studies).”
These questions come up because a good number of people don’t know the content of these fields and subsequently disregard them. But those answers couldn’t be farther from the truth. When it comes to practical applicability, ignoring certain fields should only be acceptable when applying for a job that requires a particular specialization (such as nursing, engineering, a Master’s degree, etc). Otherwise, you can acquire the same skills in Chicano Studies that you can in almost any other field. The key is what you do out of the classroom through internships, research, and extracurricular pursuits, not one’s major. Thus, the importance of fields such as Chicano Studies lies in challenging how we think, not in being a gateway to employment.
Now, we can all agree that “minority issues,” throughout time, have been relegated to the doldrums of academia. American students get one version of history, and it’s not the one that includes the contributions of Latinos dating back to the Revolutionary War. For example, readings for a class I took this semester touched on the Bracero Program, shockingly revealing that my colleagues didn’t know about it, or its economic significance to American agriculture during and immediately after World War 2. And they certainly didn’t know its effect on US-Mexico policy to this day. Most of my colleagues taking the class were not Latino, meaning they were (on the surface) immersing themselves in a curriculum that was not personally relevant. The class shed light on issues relating to race, immigration law, labor relations, foreign policy, and employment discrimination. Broad topics, in a broad field, that got everyone to reflect on the legal and political mechanisms that promulgate Latino disempowerment.
Enter my definition of an effective field of study: one that causes people to spend time in thought, to question what they read, and ultimately be independent thinkers. In my experience, fields such as Latino Studies are among the best at creating such ability. At their core, these departments offer exposure to areas such as law, history, policy, race relations, and politics. They’re fully capable of fostering independent analysis and are highly effective at challenging the preconceived notions of students. As our country increasingly grows fixated with taking information at face value, they’re needed now more than ever.
Let us use the death of investigative reporting to illustrate this point. The news has become stories on polls, causing a race to the bottom for some in political awareness, and necessitating the need for critical thought. This past election we saw campaign ads in New Orleans with a fence of illegal aliens crossing the border cause people to actually think New Orleans has such a fence, and subsequently feel it’s acceptable to ignore constitutional civil liberties, stop minorities in the street, and ask for identification. People don’t know how to interpret the news, specifically how to differentiate between current events, opinion, and garbage. When someone can’t take a principled stance on an issue, question different ideologies, and challenge their own belief systems, it’s a crisis. If people could do that, then they wouldn’t be surprised to learn Lou Dobbs, like countless other Americans, slammed illegal immigration while depending on it. I’m not saying ethnic studies departments solve any of this, they simply aid in fostering the ability to think critically, which this country desperately needs.
In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a conversation I had with my Father before attending college. It went something like this: “Matt, you can study anything you want. As long as it leads to gainful employment.” My response was choosing a field I felt could segue into multiple professions: Communication. And as I near completion of my Master’s degree in Public Administration from Cornell, I am in a cohort with students whose undergraduate backgrounds include everything from Political Science to Women’s Studies to Philosophy. Our common link is the undergraduate research we conducted, fellowships we held, and leadership roles we took that enriched our academic experience. They highlight what a college degree really is: a piece of paper on the wall. As long as one pursues courses that teach them how to think critically while pursuing opportunities that maximize professional growth, they won’t be doomed to a life of poverty. That makes Chicano Studies OK in my book.
Matthew Stieglitz received his BA in Communication from the University of Delaware. He is currently a 2011 Master of Public Administration candidate at Cornell University concentrating in Government, Politics, & Policy Studies. After receiving his MPA, Matthew will attend law school in order to merge his public affairs background with a legal education to most effectively advocate for Latinos.