Over the past few weeks I have been hearing from a variety of graduate students in my academic programs about their frustrations with the current curriculum. Normally I don’t pay much heed to the whining. A complaining graduate student is about as rare as a Popeye Pez dispenser. Disappointingly, they don’t jettison delicious candy from their throat, either. Trust me.
In these cases, though, the graduate-student concerns reflect a much more serious problem with History and American Studies as fields beyond Big Midwestern University. Many of these students arrived at BMU with the explicit intent of studying Chicano/Latino/a Studies. Yet, in their required courses on the U.S., they have read zero (0) books on Latino/as in the U.S.
I am concerned about these revelations less for the students already interested in Latino/a Studies. After all, they will do what similar scholars have always had to do. They will fulfill the expectations for their classes while simultaneously building reading lists on Latino/a Studies that they will complete on their own time. Despite their intellectual isolation, they will nonetheless persevere because they are committed to Latino/a communities.
Rather, I am worried about the students who are not explicitly interested in Latina/o Studies in those classes. These are students who will (if they have some luck) obtain jobs teaching U.S. history at other universities across the nation. They will do so having received the implicit message that it is acceptable to ignore the nation’s largest minority entirely. It will, in other words, replicate a disciplinary ignorance that has been in place since the nineteenth century.
Curriculum, of course, is a touchy subject. It is hard to bring up these issues without sounding like I am wagging my finger and clucking in disapproval. That’s probably because I bring these issues up while I am wagging my finger and clucking in disapproval.
Still, these classes are taught by colleagues whom I deeply respect. They are some mighty smart people whose own research is impeccable. We aren’t talking about secret members of the Klan in other words. I can guarantee they aren’t pushing a covert white supremacist agenda. Hey, that might not sound like such a ringing endorsement, but it’s not a guarantee that I could have made about some of my former colleagues in Texas. At Big Midwestern University, though, these are faculty who are fiercely interested in social justice issues.
So if these colleagues aren’t disciples of Lou “Immigrants are Hiding Under My Bed” Dobbs, just what is going on? Why is there a disconnect between their politics and their course content?
Latino/as’ long presence in this nation means they should appear in both halves of the traditional U.S. history survey. For most U.S. historians, though, Latinos (much less Latinas) remain an “and also” topic rather than being construed as fundamental to the history of the nation. If they make it onto a syllabus at all, Latinos are most likely to be found in the “Suggested Reading” section rather than in the “required” list.
Part of this is a problem much larger than academia. For the past 160 years, the United States has been in collective denial about Latino populations north of Mexico. The mass media periodically expresses “shock (SHOCK!)” that Latino/as account for a large slice of the nation every twenty years or so. Even in those moments, you can depend on the fact that Latino/as will be figured as “foreign” or “recent arrivals” rather than as communities with a century-and-a-half of history that informs their experiences in this nation.
But where would the media learn such things? Given my recent conversations with grad students, it turns out that even the best history departments can't be relied upon to teach that history.
This year, 2009, marks the fortieth anniversary of El Plan de Santa Barbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education. Back in 1969, Chicano/a college students were mighty pissed. Universities failed to acknowledge the contributions, struggles, and perspectives of Chicanos and Chicanas (and Latino/as more broadly) within the United States. These students turned their frustration into direct action. Most universities responded by creating subunits focused on Latino/a Studies. After four decades of activism, scholarship, and teaching within those units, it seems that Latino Studies has failed to convince other historians of their importance. And guess what? Latino/a students are still pissed.
It is to historians’ peril that they continue to bury their head in the sand around Latino/a issues. Today, twenty percent of the nation’s schoolchildren currently identify as Latina/o. The Census Bureau further predicts that Latino/as will constitute 28 percent of the nation’s population by 2050. Latino/as will profoundly change the face (literally) of higher education in the next decade.
What will the poorly trained historians we are producing tell those future students? That the nation’s history isn’t relevant for Latino/as? That a quarter of the nation's population isn't relevant for its history? That they would have learned more about Latinos in grad school, but it just didn’t seem that important? That salsa is delicious?
This is not to say that I think every U.S. historian must devote themselves to studying the experiences of Latino/as exclusively. I am saying, however, that it is inexcusable that we have graduate students earning Ph.D.’s who have little or no knowledge of this history. Savvy departments who are currently searching in any field in U.S. history would be wise to ask a new assistant professor how they will address the surging Latino/a Student body in their course content.
The knowledge and research that we conduct about the past means that historians have an unusual ability to speak about political and social issues in the present. By refusing to understand how much the nation’s population has actually changed, however, historians forfeit their intellectual authority.