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What Did You Major In?

December 8th, 2010 · 12 Comments

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.

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Tags: diversity · Economics · Education · Immigration · Labor Relations · Latin American Foreign Policy · Latino History · Media · Mexico · racism

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 HispanicPundit // Dec 9, 2010 at 1:07 am

    There are really three reasons I dislike Chicano Studies as a major. The first, and the one I brought up most, is the lack of financial returns. The second, and one I only hinted at in the comments, has to do with the culture it promotes, and the third is the lack of critical thinking.

    Regarding the first, it’s important to keep in mind precisely who the typical Chicano Studies student is. Unlike, say creative writing, where the typical student is the child of a wealthy family, Chicano Studies specifically caters to the poor and lower socioeconomic levels of society. So the cost of the degree is more burdensome to the parents and the lack of financial return is more harmful to the student.

    Now if I understood your previous post correctly, the gist of the post is “bang for your buck” in community service. What is your marginal return for your marginal cost in performing community service. Not losing the big picture by over focusing on the less consequential. In short, its about the efficient allocation of human resources to the mutually agreed goal of upward mobility of Latinos.

    With that in mind, lets say that a student from the barrio got accepted to Northeastern University and took Chicano Studies as a major (luckily, they don’t have such a major, but arguendo) and ended up like Kelli Space, in this recent Yahoo News article:

    Kelli Space, 23, graduated from Northeastern University in 2009 with a bachelor’s in sociology — and a whopping $200,000 in student loan debt. Space, who lives with her parents and works full-time, put up a Web site called TwoHundredThou.com soliciting donations to help meet her debt obligation, which is $891 a month. That number jumps to $1,600 next November.

    Hypothetically speaking, of course, would you then still say that it was an efficient allocation of human resources? Keep in mind that not only is this $200,000 dollars in debt, but the most productive years of her life have also gone towards the degree (in other words, opportunity cost has to be added in as well). In addition, remember that in the Chicano Studies case the student is likely to come from a low income neighborhood and with her rested the hopes and dreams of her parents (If Chicano Studies, like Creative Writing majors, catered specifically to the well-off and rich, my first point against them would be nullified – like I tell my friends, I don’t think everybody should require financial security in a major, but poor people should).

    Now granted, this is the extreme case, but really not that far off from where college costs are headed. And really, to a poor family, $200,000 in student loan debt is not much different than $50,000 in student loan debt. Both are almost impossible to pay off. So there has to be a tipping point at which you have to factor in financial return. And even if grants are included, the student still needs to come up with a fair amount of their own money (again, not to mention years of their lives lost). For example, I have a couple of friends attending college who have full grants but their gardener fathers are still forking out a good chunk of money each month for room and board, food, and everyday expenses (I’m such a stickler on this, that I advised my sister to not even apply to UC’s when looking for an electrical engineering University – my logic: what could a UC give her that a strong Cal State couldn’t, and at a fraction of the cost? She now attends Cal Poly’s engineering program – also, I generally believe in the signaling model of education).

    My second problem with Chicano Studies is the culture. The students are not content in limiting their poverty to themselves, no, they want to spread it to others. They are no different than the high school counselor who sees a gifted student and instead steers them against the sciences and math majors, on the basis that they couldn’t make it anyway. But instead of doing it based on stereotypes and false perceptions, they cloak it in moral terms and false alternatives. They will tell the gifted student who loves math and is looking forward to a degree in Chemistry, or electrical engineer, or science that instead of pursuing such “greed centered” majors in the evil pursuit of “personal gain”, they should “give back to the community”. Instead they should look to being a public school math teacher in a low income community or a community organizer. This is the cancerous part of the major I referred to in my previous comments.

    You mentioned in your previous post that “A friend once told me when it comes to Latinos in college, WEB DuBois’s adage of the “talented tenth” is more like the “talented tenth of the tenth”.” Well I am arguing here that the joke applies even more so to the professional careers. The dearth of Latinos in the engineering, chemistry and the sciences is even more apparent than in academia. And I am arguing that a good chunk of that reason is the existence of Chicano Studies as a major.

    Just imagine where all of those Latinos that went to UCLA would have majored in if Chicano Studies didn’t exist? Sure, some would have taken Sociology, or Anthropology or History, but some would have also taken Math, or Engineering, or Chemistry.

    And to be clear, what I am arguing here cannot also be said of Sociology or Anthropology or History as a major, for two reasons. First, while they too produce low paying jobs, they are at least full disciplines. Chicano Studies, on the other hand, is more of an elective in History (or Anthropology or Sociology) gone rogue. It’s not truly a full discipline in the way Sociology, History or Anthropology are. Second, and really more importantly, Chicano Studies feeds off of nationalist pride in a way that the other majors do not. I know more than a handful of students who told me they chose Chicano Studies as a major in order to “show Mexican pride”, or “support my people”. These are people who had no real idea what the major teaches and choose it solely on the basis of what it promises to teach – on what its name signaled. Young, impressionable, recently turned adults who would have likely choose other majors without the sink hole that is Chicano Studies to fall into.

    My third reason, and this reason directly addresses the main point of your post, is precisely the lack of critical thinking that goes on in Chicano Studies departments. As someone who has tangled with many a person from a liberal arts major, I can confidently say that the Chicano Studies graduate is by far the one most lacking in coherent arguments. It’s not just their support for outdated Marxist beliefs, or their even fundamental lack of basic economics that bothers me. It’s their overall paradigm that lacks even the basis on which to have constructive dialogue (See here, for a minor example of what goes on in the mind of a Chicano Studies graduate – and that’s not even the worse of em, that’s just the most recent example) . Even Sociology majors think more critically and on a big picture scale than Chicano Studies majors.

    Then there is their tunnel vision. It’s like they were taught about the Iraq war by Dick Cheney. Their views are so one sided that most have not even heard of opposing arguments. This is something that John McWhorter, for example, has been harping about lately (see here and here, for recent examples) and it’s mostly a problem in the ethnic studies majors.

    Maybe our whole disagreement depends on how we define “effective charity”. In how best to tackle the problems of poverty. In my view of the world, I see poverty first as a family affair. “Charity begins at home” is an idiom you would often hear me say. In other words, take care of you and your family first, then start focusing on others. We would all think it odd the family man who has starving children at home yet volunteers his life away to feed others, wouldn’t we (This reminds me of a blog post I read where a person was getting their Phd in Chicano Studies from – I think – UCLA and soon buying a house in Compton. I thought to myself, how backwards is that???)? Nothing motivates kids to be financially successful and escape poverty like having parents that are financially successful and out of poverty. This success motivates others to also succeed (again, because of my success, I have siblings, cousins and friends all seeking my advice and following in my footsteps). Financially successful parents does the polar opposite of what Chicano Studies does – it motivates others to be financially successful and escape the cycle of poverty.

    Lastly, I end with a story. I have more than a few Hispanic family and friends who are attending low end Cal States. One is majoring in Biology, the others mostly engineering. They plan to one day be pharmacists or engineers. They spent most of their time in community college and therefore have a lot of friends that continued on to schools like UCSD, Berkely and UCLA. They tell me of the embarrassment they feel when the other students gloat that they attend such elite Universities. When I asked them what their peers majors are, they tell me mostly Chicano Studies or ethnic studies. I then smile, tell them not to worry. While they are successful engineers already making good money, their friends will be having to take graduate work in order to make half of what they make by then (all the while consoling themselves by claiming they “are not motivated by greed”). The Chicano Studies degree, by itself, will have given them nothing. And in the end, who really showed the most smarts? The person who is able to provide for his family, giving them quality schools and making their parents proud? Or the person trying to land a manager position at McDonalds? Or opening up another failed non-profit? I tell them all that matters is major and grades…everything else is secondary at best.

    In the end, they believe me. Not because what I say is necessarily persuasive. But because I am testament to it. I grew up in Compton, California, to a single mother and was a high school drop out like everybody else around me. But one day, depressed, I saw a commercial of a for-profit college. Called. Attended their 3 year program and graduated with the highest honors. And here I am. Working at a great company as an equal to Stanford grads, UCSD grads, and others, all the while making my whole family proud. And my school isn’t even ranked it’s so low. But the major and grades is what mattered most. Luckily for me, I didn’t have any college friends to suck me into a Chicano Studies program. If I did, I would have been a bitter graduate and my family and friends would have likely been on a very different trajectory.

    Choosing “personal gain” and a financially better life for you and your family is precisely the reason our parents migrated to the United States. If charity was their goal, they should have stayed in Mexico – Mexico, after all, has a lot more problems with poverty than the United States. Choosing a major with financial gain honors what they did and continues it for the next generation to move further up the economic ladder. It completes what they started. Chicano Studies does the opposite.

  • 2 Cockroach People // Dec 9, 2010 at 7:33 am

    LMAO. As soon as I saw the title, I knew HP would comment…a priori

  • 3 Tweets that mention What Did You Major In? -- Topsy.com // Dec 9, 2010 at 7:42 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LatinoPolitics and LatinoPolitics, LatinoPolitics. LatinoPolitics said: What Did You Major In? http://is.gd/irAs7 via @mstieglitz #HigherEd #education #EthnicStudies #Latism #LatinoStudies #ChicanoStudies [...]

  • 4 HispanicPundit // Dec 9, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Oh and, that’s my short response on why Chicano Studies sucks…next time I’ll give you my long version. ;-)

  • 5 RAMON // Dec 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    ahora se entiende mejor porque tu “nombre” es “HispanicPundit”. You have such an elitist notion of education. If your nemesis Chicano Studies did not exist, you would probably use your same arguments to discourage Chicano students from majoring in fields such as sociology, history, literature, or philosophy. Because, as you well know, these majors do not lead to lucrative careers.

  • 6 HispanicPundit // Dec 9, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Ramon,

    I probably still would, atleast the poorer ones. But for very different reasons and without quite the same furor. Whether that makes my views of education elitist or not I’m not sure.

    Thanks for noticing though! Keep fighting the good fight!

  • 7 Chicano future tense // Dec 10, 2010 at 12:34 am

    I get a kick out of these two arrogant elitist “twins” having a conversation with eachother..

    Like conjoined twins at the hip one head sits up on a pedestal considers itself God’s gift to Latinos whose noblesse noblige creates in itself a tremendous sense of self-importance and a messianic arrogant white european narcissistic sense of self love…the white man’s burden to be savior and civilize the poor downtrodden brown savages..

    It’s an easy short trip to make from Chicano studies across the hallway over to European studies.
    With friends like this who needs enemies.

    The other big head poses itself as a CEO of the elite Fortune 500 group,as if he were rubbing shoulders with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.This cabeza is obscenely selfish and hypocritically sanctimonious.All hat and no cattle this robber baron has a penny in his pocket and considers himself a Rothschild banker.There is nothing worse than a peasant who has two cows and a little barn and who thinks he is better than the guy next door who has only one or no cows.little teensie weenie people like this can be truly feo -disgusting.

  • 8 irma // Dec 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

    There are probably many more Hispanic Chicano studies (PhD) than Hispanic PhD s in the natural sciences. I know, I am in the latter category. Most of us who have in interest in science choose medicine (applied science) over real science ( chemistry,physics, biology, mathematics). Why is this? Frankly, I think that it is because it easier to excel in liberal arts particularly if one’s secondary school background was weak. This is not the case in the sciences, where the “weed out” factor is probably 50% in the first 2 years of college.
    Latinos who generally enter college with a poor secondary school education – end up choosing a liberal arts major. I happen to be the only Latin American scientist in my department.
    Personally, I don’t think that Latinos are lured into Chicano studies- it is attractive because they have the company of other Latinos and because it is easier to pass than something like
    chemistry, engineering or biology. I had no interest in Chicano studies, I didnt need to go to college to learn about Mexican history. ThatI could learn about on my own. Science on the other hand, was definitely something that college could teach me. I am an educator, dont make a lot of money but I have never regretted my choice of a college major.

  • 9 Chicano future tense // Dec 13, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    It’s truly sickening to me to read some of these articles and posts which directly and not so directly “dis” Chicano Studies.

    Franz Fanon,a prominent figure in the black liberation movement, during the 50′s-60′s was a psychiatrist doing research into psychiatric disorders affecting African victims of European colonialism.In his studies her explored some of the disorders linked directly to white European racism on Black,Arab and Asian people.
    One of these disorders was a latent deep sense of self-hatred, a self-loathing extending to include one’s own race and people.
    As a result of white European racism and colonialism many of these people of color on a subconscious level accepted their inferiority as a psychological precondition to what they perceived to be a superior white European culture.

    In my opinion Latinos are no exception to this disorder.
    The phraseology and context of this inferiority may be posited and expressed differently.but if you look beneath the surface you will see the same dynamics of self-hatred and inferiority at work.
    Some put-down Chicano Studies in a crass disgusting economic and political context characterizing it as being a “waste of time”,”not profitable”" not a money maker”.
    Others,will cavalierly dismiss Chicano Studies as something of lesser value being lower in the hierarchy of a Eurocentric value system,which attracts a “lower” unintelligent class of people (Latino students) somehow incapable of succeeding in the hard sciences.
    Such people also consider Chicano Studies-Mexican History -Chicano History as not being worthy of serious study and research, as being a low priority-an afterthought.Not important.

    Others,although identifying themselves as “Latinos” ,who considering themselves Latino advocates still express a racist,patronizing elitist attitude towards the “poor downtrodden brown savages”.
    Such people are racial and cultural chameleons who are capable of switching identities like they change socks..depending on the day and the hour they will be Latino or at other times will be white Europeans depending on the mood,place and company.Seeing themselves as messianic figures, these “Gente de razon” yearn to be the saviors of the brown race carrying the heavy load and responsibility on their shoulders of “the white mans burden”.
    IMHO,the Latino people would be better off without these sick people infecting them with their neurotic self-hatred and latent deep seated sense of inferiority and in other cases with a patronizing narcissistic white racism.

    These self haters express their sickness by finding ways to dump on,to disrespect Chicano/Mexican studies and history.

    Notice, they will almost never “dis” American or European history which are in reality the default “white European studies” programs in public education from K-12 and in higher education.

    “Chicano Mexicano” studies deserve respect and to be valued and cherished as the fruits of the Chicano struggle.

    To such people I say..
    Stop dumping your neurotic toxic garbage on Chicano Studies.

  • 10 irma // Dec 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Chicano studies should not be a major. It should be
    an elective that is part of a major in Mexican history. It is sad that people are wasting a Berkeley/Stanford/UCLA education on Chicano studies. Clearly they were looking for an easy major.

  • 11 HispanicPundit // Dec 14, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Why does it not surprise me that Chicano Future Tense is in such strong support of Chicano Studies as a major?

    His post(s) are examples of the “independent thinkers” Matthew Stieglitz speaks so highly of.

    irma,

    Completely agree.

  • 12 NM Observer // Jul 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Hispanic Pundit:

    I agree completely with you. I think the only thing that I would add is the same criticisms you have about Chicano Studies can also be applied to majors in Bilingual Education, Multicultural Education, Spanish and Southwest Studies. The small-mindedness and the tunnel vision demonstrated by the individuals majoring in these areas is beyond belief at times. Although the lack of critical thinking is even worse. People with Hispanic surnames and who identify with Mexican or Latino culture in some way need to stay away from those fields and go into the sciences, maths or engineering fields. In the long run they will find that they will end up doing more with their lives and be happier because they will be doing work that has real value both monetarily and terms of benefits to society.

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