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Have African American Studies strayed off course?

Happy African American student raising her hand to ask a question during lecture in the classroom.

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By J. Pharoah Doss

Last year, Kanye West was embroiled in controversy over statements deemed antisemitic. Then he was written off as another anti-intellectual celebrity. Still and all, West made his most controversial remarks on the Lex Fridman podcast. It’s understandable why no one paid those remarks any attention, but they’re repeated here for argument’s sake.

West told Fridman, “We don’t need to teach history. We don’t need to teach anything that is subjective. Any forced, subjective information is just to weaken and indoctrinate our species, and that’s what schools do now.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, teachers who agreed with Churchill’s saying that “history is written by the victors” were against what West called “indoctrination.” At the same time, those educators would have been disappointed that West’s solution was to stop teaching history instead of launching a movement to create alternative academic disciplines.

That movement in the 1960s and 1970s led to an explosion of new fields: Asian Studies, Black Studies, Gender Studies, Latino Studies, LGBTQ Studies, Native American Studies, etc. The idea that the traditional social sciences and humanities, like anthropology, cultural studies, history, literature, political science, psychology, and sociology, were Eurocentric led to the creation of these new academic disciplines.

These new studies looked at all the traditional social sciences and humanities from the perspective of a specific identity group.  The obvious question is: What’s wrong with that? The universities that established the first departments for these new disciplines thought there was nothing wrong with it at all.  These forward-looking institutions believed these alternative fields were necessary on a post-Civil Rights Act/post-modern campus, where truth was relative. These forward-looking institutions thought the new disciplines would balance out the Eurocentric worldview by providing alternative perspectives to demonstrate how different identity groups contributed to the nation and to Western civilization.

But these forward-thinking institutions didn’t pay attention to the radical tone of those who supported the new disciplines, and no matter how forward-thinking these institutions were, they couldn’t foresee in what direction these new disciplines would go.

In 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States became the most popular alternative to “history written by the victors”. The author rejected what he called the traditional approach to history that promoted nationalism and glorified the country. Zinn portrayed American history as the exploitation and manipulation of the majority by rigged systems that favor elite rulers. The book has been assigned reading in high schools and colleges ever since.

Zinn’s direction was popular in all the new ethnic and gender studies departments. Now, the question is: what have these departments turned into since then?  We’ll focus specifically on African American studies.

Two months ago, a podcast host asked Black professor John McWhorter if the advent of African American Studies was a step in the wrong direction.

McWhorter was uncertain. He said a study of over a hundred African American Studies departments was needed to know for sure. Early in McWhorter’s career, he was a member of an African American studies department and wrote numerous essays critiquing the field after he investigated different departments at other universities. Today, McWhorter doesn’t believe African American studies departments are exploring the social sciences and humanities to illuminate the totality of the Black experience; he believes these departments focus single-mindedly on racism and inequality as if that’s all the Black experience is.

A month after that podcast, McWhorter asked Vincent Lloyd, director of Africana Studies at Villanova University, what “Black studies” were all about in a nutshell, and Lloyd stated the discipline was always about studying how Black people were dominated.  In other words, the only alternative to history written by the victors is history according to the victims. This may balance out the Eurocentric perspective, but it’s still indoctrination.

Suppose Kanye West is right and forced subjective information weakens minds. Wouldn’t that mind-weakening apply more to students taught history according to the victims than to those forced fed history written by the victors?


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