The Daily Princetonian published an op-ed Feb. 20 decrying the existence of several departments at Princeton — namely American studies, African American studies and Latino studies. Calling these culture-specific departments “unnecessary” and “superfluous,” the op-ed advocated dissolving these departments and incorporating them into a broader American studies program. The column has evoked strong reactions from many members of the Brown community, especially those concentrating in Brown’s equivalents of those departments. American history is too broad and perspectives too varied. Culture-specific studies thus play an essential role in academia and should be supported and continued.
United States history cannot be captured by any one textbook or any single narrative, especially if events are portrayed in the context of a single racial group. Of course, this is understandable — a broad American history class is designed for exposure, not for depth. In their course of study, many Brunonians have achieved a broader and more complex understanding of American history, especially in the context of race. But the point is that while American history can be painted through one narrow lens, only a further exploration into the truly dynamic nature of the United States can expose the histories, rather than a singular history, of this country and its many constituent cultures.
This is why departments such as Africana studies and ethnic studies continue to exist at Brown. By existing separately from the American studies or history departments, they attest to the uniquely significant roles that different racial and cultural groups, immigrants or not, have played and continue to play in this beautiful, haphazard and constantly morphing project called America.
While the University’s American studies, “one of the oldest departments of American studies” in the country, certainly merits great recognition and tremendous respect, it remains as free-form and exploratory as the Africana studies or Latin American and Caribbean studies departments. With classes like AMST1612: “Cities of Sound: Place and History in American Pop Music” and AMST0191: “The Vietnam War and Visual Culture,” the American studies department aims to explore a broad range of influences, both human and non-human, that have shaped our current understanding of the United States. Grouping cultural studies programs under a uniform track would limit the depth of academic offerings allowed by multiple departments.
The author of the Princetonian’s op-ed called for a uniform department because specific cultures “(belong) within the context of American culture as a whole.” But this would prioritize generalized history lectures over a multi-departmental focus on experts of specific narratives. We lend our fullest support to the existence of these various ethnocentric departments, but this is not to claim that history, especially American history, needs to be defined through the context of race. Rather, what departments like American studies do is to expose and challenge our conceptions of a place by positing multiple lenses, to be viewed individually or at the same time, that allow us to see the county’s development through unique focuses and perspectives.
Race remains salient in American society today, rendering departments like Africana studies and ethnic studies crucial in academia. These departments, through their continuation, not only attest to the continual and vital importance of race in shaping American society but can also provide us with some of the pieces to construct the meaning of being and living in the United States.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Dan Jeon, and its members, Mintaka Angell, Samuel Choi, Nicholas Morley and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.