Commentaries
Do We Need to Have “Latina/o” Studies Programs?

UNC-CH creates new minor

By George Leef

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October 21, 2004

Last spring, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill established a new minor in “Latina/o Studies.” A recent announcement from UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences proclaims that “The establishment of the new program, beginning this semester, follows recognition of the increasing importance and influence of the rapidly growing number of people in North Carolina and the region who came – or whose ancestors came – from countries in Latin America….”

Has UNC done something wise or something silly in putting its imprimatur on yet another ethnic studies program? I’m inclined to see this as silly, another of those “feel-good” things that are so appealing to politicians, university administrators, and everyone else who gets to spend other people’s money.

North Carolina does have a growing “Latina/o” (has the term “Hispanic” now been retired?) population, but it’s hard to see how that proves the need for the state’s flagship university needs to have a “Latina/o” program.

UNC’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, provided a view into the workings of the multicultural mindset when it editorialized that “Students of all races have a use for cultural studies, and becoming a leading university requires improving cultural awareness.” So if more people of Latin origins or ancestry are moving in, we’d better get ready to understand them by offering some courses under the umbrella of “Latina/o Studies.”

The implicit assumption seems to be that unless the university takes the lead in promoting “cultural awareness,” people of minority groups will not be socially accepted, or even face hostility. Never mind that there don’t seem to be any problems between the state’s non-Latino residents and the Latinos who have been living here for years. Real problems aren’t necessary; the mere suggestion that a new course might enhance the level of “cultural awareness” is sufficient.

Let’s examine the justification for the Latina/o Studies Minor.

First, is it true that “cultural awareness” is necessary for people to cooperate or peacefully associate? Does someone think, “I understand and appreciate the Latino culture, therefore I like Jose?” It is far more likely that someone would think, ”Jose is a good co-worker, so I like him,” or “Jose roots for the Tar Heels, so I like him.” Good human relations don’t depend on a deep knowledge of another person’s culture, but instead on a small number of shared interests.

Second, is it even true that there is a “Latina/o” culture to understand? Like whites, blacks, Chinese, and all other population groups, there are great differences among individuals of Latin descent – they don’t all believe the same things, like the same things, or act in similar ways. Whatever generalizations a student might draw from having taken courses in the Latina/o minor are apt to be inapplicable to many individual Latinos they might encounter.

Third, would the courses students could take to complete this minor actually convey much knowledge about Latinos living in North Carolina? To get the minor, students have to take five courses drawn from a variety of departments. Here are some of the choices.

English 49E: Difference, Aesthetics, and Affect. Examines interrelations between cultural difference, socio-political circumstances, aesthetic form, and the representation, production, and conveyance of subjectivity (affect, states of feeling) in texts, other media, and material culture.

English 50/Women’s Studies 150: This course explores literature, performance art, film, and photography by Latinas/os whose works may be described as “queer” and that question the terms and norms of cultural dominance.

English 180: This course explores Latina/o literature about photography in relation to photography by queer Latina/o artists and, through this double focus poses certain questions about identity, subjectivity, and culture.

History 145: The American Colonial Experience [from a multicultural perspective]. This course examines the history of Native North America, the Europeans (the Spanish, French, and English) who colonized North America, and the Africans brought as slaves, to 1763.

Someone wanting to better understand his new Latina/o neighbors or co-workers better look elsewhere.

There is nothing wrong with “cultural awareness,” but let’s not pretend that it is a necessary ingredient in social harmony or that the only way to achieve it is through college courses.

George Leef (georgeleef@popecenter.org) is the executive director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh. For more information on the Pope Center visit our Web site at www.popecenter.org.

 


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