Opinion Pieces from the Columbia Spectator
(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
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,
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.