January 30, 2008

The Fight for Asian American Studies

From my 44's blog:

So here's the topic article:


The story:

Harvard, America’s oldest university, does not yet have an Asian American Studies department, even though their student body is 18% Asian. There are only four Asian American studies courses at Harvard and not a single full professor. Harvard’s student faculty argues that there is neither interest nor funding to justify a full concentration or full time professor, and so they haven’t taken any steps to institutionalize Asian American Studies. Naturally, the Asian American students want recognition and continue to fight for the program.

My post:

The history of the fight for Asian American studies is long. The great Frank Chin fought for Asian American Studies during the early 1970’s because he strongly believed that Asian Americans needed an outlet through which they could study and develop their own culture. Both the logic and desire make sense; since Asian Americans are a marginalized part of the population, it would seem rational that we could use a program which focused specifically on Asian American culture. After all, African American Studies has created a space in academia to learn about African American history and to contribute to the growth of their culture, and teachers like Toni Morrison and Cornel West have contributed their works to the dialogue as well as have helped to coach and educate the next generation of black leaders. Seeing what African American Studies has done for African Americans, it would seem rational that a similar program could do similar great things for Asian Americans. We could use Asian American Studies as a platform to develop the arts, political awareness, and intellectual growth of Asian America. At least that was the original intent.

However, there are two crucial historical differences between Asian American Studies and African American Studies. First, African American culture, literature, and activism predated African American Studies by over two hundred years, while the Asian American conscience developed at around the same time during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when our cultural studies programs started. Asian Americans didn’t get the same “running start” outside of academia that African American culture had. Second, African American culture started in a tradition of work and struggle for recognition, while the main proponents of Asian American public “culture” come from a background in postmodernism. Rather than recognizing history and logical discourse, as leaders in African American culture do so well, our “leaders” in academia have deconstructed and attacked it.

This duality has put Asian American culture in a bind. Without the “running start” outside of academia, much of our Asian American discourse takes place among academics in the Ivory Tower. There is nothing wrong with being an academic, but the sheer lack of diversity of voices contributing to the dialogue limits the diversity of ideas. And because our “culture” is rooted in academic postmodernism, our “leaders” often take on typical hostile deconstructionist attitudes that hinder serious dialogue and progress. Rather than trying to understand and interpret history, many of our “leaders” attack history as sexist, racist, classist, or hierarchical, without a thought as to what history might be able to teach us. Many of our “artists” make a living by distorting traditional myths for non-Asian audiences, and our systems reward the people who manage to distort the most history and make the most money in doing so. Asian American organizations have pushed progressive thinkers like Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, and David Mura to the fringes of our culture, while they have bestowed accolades on people like David Henry Hwang, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan. Many of our “leaders” produce and perpetuate stereotypes rather than fight them. They silence our voices rather than encourage us. The result has been a “culture” geared towards non-Asian Asiaphiles rather than us Asian Americans. The effect on us has been disasterous. We now have an Asian American population skeptical of its leaders, a population which has trouble getting excited over being Asian American or being part of an Asian American movement, and a people stymied by confusion and mistrust.

I think that Asian American Studies is important, and I agree that schools need Asian American Studies. How else can we progress without education specific to our own issues? However, I also think that any additional programs need a great deal of forethought before instituting yet another Hong Kingston style deconstructionist propaganda outlet which only pretends to be a serious academic department. We need Asian American Studies departments which will provide instruction in the critical thinking our young people need to create change, not departments that aim to please a white audience with distorted representations of Asian history and Asian people. We need Asian American Studies departments that will teach our young people to learn from the past, rather than attacking the past. We need critical intelligent thinkers, not critical deconstructionist propagandists. The stakes are simply too high.

So the Harvard students are right–we do need more Asian American Studies departments. But we need quality too. Education is a critical part of any empowered society. It’s where we set the foundations of human creativity. The struggle ahead will be for all of us–not just the students, but all Asian Americans and people who care about Asian Americans–to set our standards high when making demands for quality education.

No comments: