Rethinking America: The Practice and Politics of Multiculturalism in Higher Education

Article excerpt

Rethinking America: The Practice and Politics of Multiculturalism in Higher Education

Twenty-five years ago, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and further buoyed by the energies of the Anti-War Movement, a generation of new college students across this nation took to their own campuses, invaded and occupied administration offices, startled and no doubt terrified a few presidents, deans and professors. Students of color--then called "Third World" students in solidarity with the imperialized Third World whence so many of their own forebears came as slaves, coolies or immigrants--demanded some fundamental changes in higher education. The faculty and administration then were still almost exclusively white and slightly less so, male. The student body, while it had begun to admit more women and some minorities in the sixties, was only somewhat less monolithic than the faculty and administration. The curriculum had been fairly static since probably the first decades of the century, and the idea of "multiculturalism" had not yet been invented. However, a new vocabulary was emerging to name the many empowerment projects appearing in California and around the country during and immediately after the great Civil Rights Movement.

Negroes became Blacks, and Mexican Americans, Chicanos; American Indians preferred Native Americans, and Americans of Asian provenance and heritage came together to create yet another collective identity, the Asian Americans. Ethnic pride joined Black Power and Brown Power. Together with feminists, anti-war activists, and gay and lesbian activists, their protests all continued the momentum first established by the Civil Rights Movement to challenge the status quo, and to empower themselves. These newly awakened, newly enfranchised Americans all shared a long, common history of having been Excluded Americans, as well as a tortuous, often violent history of struggle and resistance. During the late sixties, the changes were coming on very fast and very hard, one on top of each other. By no means confined simply to college campuses, these movements were nevertheless largely spearheaded by young people, who felt the most stake in a redefined, future American society, who had more time and luxury to think and organize than working people, and who discovered that campuses afforded them a greater measure of freedom of speech and assembly (especially after the Free Speech Movement of UC Berkeley of the mid-1960's) than most other locations in American society.

Beginning in 1968, at San Francisco State and University of California campuses such as Berkeley and Santa Barbara, then spreading to many campuses across the nation during the course of the next twenty-five years to the present day (1992), students of color have been demanding greater access to higher education, recruitment of more faculty of color, and the creation of programs that have come to be known collectively as Ethnic Studies, and separately by a variety of names, including Black Studies (later also called Afro-American Studies and African American Studies), Chicano or Mexican-American Studies (later, also Puerto Rican Studies, or more generically, Latino Studies), American Indian or Native American Studies, and Asian American Studies. These various ethnic studies programs are the beginning of multicultural curriculum reform in higher education.

So what is Ethnic Studies? First of all, it is very distinct from Area Studies, programs which arose out of American imperialism in the Third World, bearing names such as African Studies, Asian Studies and Latin American Studies. Their original, founding purpose was to focus on U.S.-Third World relations and to train specialists to uphold U.S. hegemony in these regions of the world where the United States had heavy economic and political investments.

Although area studies scholars have become far more critical of U.S.-Third World relations since the Anti-War Movement of the sixties, and many have adopted Third World perspectives in their work, they are still predominantly white male scholars entrenched in established departments, subscribing to and benefitting from traditional patterns of distributing power and rewards in the academy, and by private foundations and the U. …