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Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2005 Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor
Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the
Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
About this Issue
About the Contributors

Issue 3.2 Homepage

·(Re)-Education: A Matter of Tradition
·(Re)-Education: Everybody Wins
·(Re)-Education: Déjà Vu?
·Are You Qualified?
·(Re)-Education: Shock Value

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Opinion Pieces from the Columbia Spectator

Danielle Evans

(Re)-Education: A Matter of Tradition
January 27, 2004

Sitting on my desk as I write is one of this year's now infamous Orgo Night fliers. "Who Needs Ethnic Studies?" reads the caption above a caricature of Michael Jackson. If only because I don't quite understand it, this flier is not as objectively offensive as others from this year or years past. For truly offensive material, one could look to this year's flier mocking the recent death of the late University Professor Edward Said, or to the phone mail message sent to the entire campus two years ago—a song with the refrain of "big black balls." What I find striking about the ethnic studies flier in particular is that it represents not so much the Columbia University Marching Band's deliberate attempt to be obnoxious, but rather the way in which ethnic studies is viewed by the majority of people on campus.

Ethnic studies is treated as an easily dismissible joke that caters to the whims of minorities with identity crises, and rarely as a serious intellectual commitment that the University owes its student body. Orgo Night, along with other arenas in which humor comes at the expense of marginalized populations, are indications of the cost of such an approach.

Orgo Night is often described as Columbia's oldest, or only tradition. However, like so many other traditions on this campus, it is one that caters only to a specific segment of the student population, while isolating and alienating other groups on campus.

Even before anything about Orgo Night offended me, it never struck as me as something I wanted to be a part of. When the event was taking place my freshman year, I heard the commotion beneath my window and asked a junior suitemate what was going on. "Orgo Night," he replied. "It's like, a lot of white people screaming or something." Now, those of you who plan to write in and tell me that it's hypocritical to preemptively classify Orgo Night as an event for "white people" while simultaneously complaining about the alienation of minority students on campus need not exert yourselves. My point is that many Columbia students feel excluded from or offended by the event, but at the same time many others wonder why such people can't shut up and let the CUMB have its fun. This gap in perspective indicates a larger divide on campus, one that the University actively, if not intentionally, promotes.

The discipline of ethnic studies—the study of the experiences of minority groups—is low on the list of Columbia's academic commitments. Students majoring in areas related to ethnic studies (a formal comparative ethnic studies major does not yet exist) often find that courses they need to graduate don't exist. Even in the more developed programs in that area, a rotating faculty makes it difficult for students to anticipate their long-term schedules or to build relationships with their professors. New faculty appointments are bogged down in a lengthy bureaucratic process. A Comparative Ethnic Studies major has been continually rejected by the Committee on Instruction, meaning that would-be majors are often deterred from pursuing the field.

Although these problems with pursuing a course of study in ethnicity and race may deter students who already have an interest in the field, the real danger is to those who have no interest in ethnic studies whatsoever—often the students who could most benefit from the information and intellectual framework provided by such courses.

In order to ostensibly combat the problem of getting such students into an ethnic studies classroom, Columbia instituted the Major Cultures requirement, the stepchild of the Core Curriculum. The broad range of courses that fulfill the requirement, the fact that in any given year half of those courses are unavailable because of the problems detailed above, and the fact that the fulfillment of a two semester sequence is used to justify the trivialization of minority experiences in other Core classes—implicitly reinforcing the false binary between the imagined "west" and everywhere else—indicate that ethnic studies is not a serious concern for the University.

The academic trivialization of ethnic studies and minority experiences at Columbia both contributes to the widespread ignorance of the history of race in this country and the role that even "humorous" events play in that history. It also serves to reinforce the idea that students are justified in not taking the complaints of students of color seriously. Why should they, when the administration doesn't?

Last year, at a forum on the Core, I alleged that it was morally and intellectually irresponsible for the University to graduate students who neither had an understanding of the fact that non-white people think about the world in a meaningful way, nor of what it means to be marginalized. While generally sympathetic, administrators present seemed to think that this was a gross exaggeration. Now, faced with the continued tolerance of Orgo Night's advertising, I wonder what the administration makes of the fact that racist, sexist, and homophobic fliers continue to draw crowds of students, who find nothing wrong with the situation and are offended by criticism of the event.

During a recent meeting with a University official, an upset student was asked to keep in mind that the Orgo Night was a "tradition." It is about time that Columbia addressed its real tradition of isolating minority students and exacerbating the problem with its approach to the study of marginalized groups.

So who needs ethnic studies? Michael Jackson may, and if Columbia wants to graduate educated and responsible citizens, or is concerned about the social climate of its campus, so do we all.

Tools 3.2 Online Resources Recommended Reading S&F Online in the Classroom
S&F Online - Issue 3.2, Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
Monica L. Miller, Guest Editor - ©2005.