The Advantage of Ethnic Studies Courses

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Updated on July 22, 2022
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  • Ethnic studies emerged to address the exclusion of POC from social sciences curricula.
  • Opponents of CRT object to the inclusion of ethnic studies classes in college.
  • Ethnic studies programs improve graduation rates and empower students.

With the continued racialized violence against Black and brown people in the United States, many higher education administrators have advocated for adopting coursework that focuses on issues of systemic inequality. And many colleges are working to make learning environments more equitable and anti-racist.

Ethnic studies emerged as a result of the exclusion of racial minorities in social sciences classes and curricula. This field originated in the 1960s to provide insight into the experiences of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups.

What Is Ethnic Studies?

Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary field informed by sociology, psychology, history, anthropology, criminal justice, and legal studies. Ethnic studies departments now encompass areas like African American studies, Asian American studies, Chicano studies, and Native American studies.

Recently, discussions of systemic oppression and the empowerment of marginalized groups have been a point of contention in the United States. Today, many Republican lawmakers are opposed to using federal funding to teach critical race theory (CRT) in schools.

CRT — a legal framework that arose in the 1960s and is used in many ethnic studies programs — is centered on the understanding that racism is deeply embedded in our culture and society. Opponents of critical social theories like CRT argue that it is divisive and promotes discrimination. On May 14, 2021, several Republican members of Congress introduced a bill to ban teaching CRT in federal institutions.

5 Reasons Why Ethnic Studies Is Important

Despite recent opposition, ethnic studies is an important field that provides academic, social, and professional benefits for students. Here are five specific benefits of ethnic studies courses:

  1. Improved Student Graduation Rates

    Results from a study evaluating San Francisco State University's ethnic studies courses showed that ethnic studies majors graduate at a rate about 20% higher than non-ethnic studies majors. Reasons for this higher graduation rate include closer relationships between students and faculty and better support services.

    Ethnic studies faculty also teach students information that directly relates to their lived experiences, which may lead to an increase in self-confidence, self-efficacy, and overall well-being.

  2. More Supportive Learning Environments for Underrepresented Students

    Racial microaggressions are a common experience for students of color at predominantly white institutions. The threat of stereotyping and feelings of imposter syndrome are also common in academic subjects where students are in the numerical minority. As an example, women may experience stereotype threat in predominantly male math or engineering classes, and they may underperform if they sense gender bias.

    In ethnic studies classes, student makeup tends to be more diverse, and faculty tend to be more knowledgeable and better equipped to rectify gender and racial bias in the classroom. Students are also exposed to more diverse coursework and faculty, which provides opportunities for people of color (POC) to see themselves reflected in their texts and in their professors.

  3. Enhanced Critical Thinking Skills

    In ethnic studies courses, faculty encourage students to analyze and evaluate theories, concepts, and historical and current events. Students don't simply regurgitate course material and concepts. They learn to think critically about how race, class, gender, and other social identities impact how different groups experience oppression and discrimination. And students consider their own roles in alleviating inequality.

    The critical thinking skills participants develop in ethnic studies courses help them pursue academic and career goals. These skills can also prepare them to directly improve their communities.

  4. Commitment to Social Change

    Commitment to social change is a pillar of ethnic studies. Ethnic studies examines and supports the Civil Rights Movement, feminism movements, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Millennials and Gen Zers areinterested in changing the world and are more civically and politically engaged than previous generations. Ethnic studies teaches students the breadth and depth of social issues in the United States and allows them to examine how activism and social movements can rectify inequality. Many students believe supporting social justice drives change.

  5. Cultural Competency

    Cultural competency refers to the ability to interact, work, and develop meaningful relationships with people of different backgrounds.

    As the U.S. continues to become more diverse, learning how culture informs people's lived experiences will become increasingly important. Additionally, research shows thatincreased diversity in the workplace improves productivity and morale. When employees are more culturally competent, people of color feel a greater sense of belonging in their workplace.

    Colleges must educate students about social and political issues in our country and empower them to become civically engaged change agents. Furthermore, schools should make sure they provide students with opportunities to take diverse courses and broaden their perspectives. Offering ethnic studies courses is an excellent way to accomplish these goals.

Feature Image: Alistair Berg / DigitalVision / Getty Images