How many lives, careers, and reputations could be saved by the knowledge and dispositions that these kinds of courses provide? The answer is not to rail against feminists or the #MeToo movement for ostensibly raising a high bar—which simple human decency and respect toward others is not. Nor should parents or families be entirely blamed. After all, parents got the same (mis)education as their children.
Expressed differently, a systematic failure of our schools and society to offer these courses in sufficient numbers means that many of those present at tomorrow's Senate judiciary hearing will have failed to reap the benefits either of an enhanced, critical understanding of human experience or the skills, knowledge, and sense of empowerment and personal responsibility that are crucial to the successful, and ideally, fulfilling, negotiating of difference in a complex society and world.
When will we learn?
Recently someone wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper criticizing
our university’s Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs
for being divisive by their focus on “tiny subgroups” (African Americans, Chicanos,
Asian Americans, LGBTQ people, women) rather than the larger human population.
In other words, this writer believes we don’t need Ethnic Studies (ES) and Women,
Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) because we should be teaching about our
common humanity rather than our different identities, experiences, and cultures.
He could not be more wrong.
First of all, human beings do experience themselves as people who have gender,
race, sexuality, and culture. And those differences lead to different experiences in
If we are to broaden and deepen our understanding of human experience, we have
to examine it in all of its diversity and understand the difference difference makes.
Ignoring social differences in human experience in academic study would make
as much sense as ignoring differences in fish or stars or flowers. Commonalities
don’t negate differences.
Second, those “tiny subgroups” are actually the majority of the human population,
and, yet, those subgroups are still mostly ignored or marginalized in much of the
curriculum of higher education. Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Studies ensure that students have an opportunity to develop skills to understand
how race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of difference work in the world.
Third, research shows that taking Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and
Sexuality Studies classes is good for students and helps achieve the goals of higher
Many Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies students are
members of the groups studied in these courses, and they are attracted to courses
that focus on their communities, identities, and histories because they do not find
their experiences and concerns centered in many other classes throughout the
Research shows that ES and WGSS courses have positive impacts on these students.
Taking these courses improves students’ sense of empowerment and their sense of
self-worth and enhances student engagement and academic achievement.
ES and WGSS courses also have positive impact on all students, especially
heterosexual white men. White students who take Ethnic Studies courses experience
reduction in prejudice and bias, and they become more democratic in their orientation.
Students in ES and WGSS classes become more empathetic and more accepting of
Additionally, students who take ES and WGSS courses develop greater cognitive
complexity and higher levels of thinking because of their exposure to diverse
experiences and ideas.
And on campuses with strong attention to diversity, students across all groups
report that they are more satisfied with their college experience than students
who do not engage diversity in college.
Finally, ES and WGSS faculty contribute essential scholarship to local and global
communities. Here at Oregon State University my ES and WGSS colleagues are
involved with research on motherhood, immigration, minority health, student
success, and transnational adoption, to name a few topics. One just returned from
supporting a medical team working with refugees in southern Iraq. Another works
with Latino/a communities in Oregon. One was nationally recognized last year for
work on behalf of transgender people. Another was recently honored by our local
community on MLK Day for his work with students and other people of color on
campus and in the community.
Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies bring unique analytical
lenses to academic study that help us understand how race, gender, sexuality, and
other forms of difference shape individual and group experiences. They help us
examine social institutions and the roles these institutions play in maintaining social
inequality. And these academic disciplines also help us think about how people can
work to bring about changes in the world that create more inclusive, equitable, and
just workplaces, families, schools, churches, and other social organizations.
We still need Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies because
race, gender, and sexuality are still important facets of human experience that give
shape to the ways we are in the world. We need ES and WGSS because people from
those “tiny subgroups” need an academic home to explore their concerns. We need
ES and WGSS because all students benefit from exposure to diverse people and
ideas. And we need ES and WGSS because the world still needs academics who can
help us see things in a new way and develop skills to create a world that is
life-affirming for us all.
Follow Susan M. Shaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drsusanmshaw