Micro Thoughts on Chicana/o Studies
Rodolfo F. Acuña
What amazes me is the lack of knowledge most educators and university professors have of pedagogy. Chicana/o Studies has been around for close to fifty years and I still hear inane questions such as why Chicana/o studies, and what is it good for. I have even been asked these questions by professional educators, practitioners who supposedly are Doctors in Education.
Chicana/o studies are part of a long tradition in academe called interdisciplinary studies that has been controversial only among less imaginative scholars. It is essentially crossing and thinking across boundaries. Historically these borders have been crossed to meet new needs.
Over a hundred years ago, we did not have the disciplines of sociology and political science that evolved from history. The new fields came about because they addressed needed knowledge such as urban and societal problems. They were experimental innovations. The problem was that as quickly as the new fields became institutionalized, they became territorial and also engaged in a disciplinary chauvinism.
Because most professors in interdisciplinary programs are trained in traditional fields, professors quickly revert to their disciplines. They take comfort in believing that their discipline places more emphasis on quantitative “rigor”. They think of themselves as “more scientific” than others; accordingly, their colleagues are seen as being in “softer” disciplines and incapable of grasping the broader dimensions of a problem.
Interdisciplinary studies are rooted area studies. They were influenced by pedagogical reformers such as John Dewey who believed in teaching the whole child. They believed in teaching the student and not the subject. Area studies focused on specific corpuses of knowledge such as countries and peoples. Thus, interdisciplinary studies became increasingly common in the United States and in Western education after World War II as the United States was forced to take a global worldview.
The war broke American isolation, forcing American universities to teach and conduct research on the non-Western world. The areas of foreign area studies before this were rare. After the war, liberals and conservatives alike became concerned about the U.S. ability to respond effectively to perceived external threats from the Soviet Union and China and the Cold War. The anti-colonial wars were reshaping world history.
In this context, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation convened a series of meetings to address this knowledge deficit, and the need to invest in international studies. The U.S. could no longer ignore the rest of the world.
The Ford Foundation was the dominant player in shaping the area studies program. From 1953 to 1966, it contributed $270 million to 34 universities for area and language studies. The National Defense Education Act of 1957, later renamed the Higher Education Act in 1965, allocated funds to universities for Area Studies and Foreign Language instruction.
The argument for Latin American, Asian and African Studies is simple. It is s a more efficient and holistic way of teaching about a country or area of studies. Learning a people’s language is not enough. A state department agent had to know the language, history, culture, literature of the country she or he would work in.
Many of us in the sixties believed that the same principle applied to Mexican American students whose population is today larger than most Latin American nations. Teachers like state department employees should know their audience. Knowing a couple of words in Spanish and eating enchiladas was not enough. A teacher should be an expert in the field of study.
Sadly the eurocentrism of society, the schools and the teachers has prevented this from happening and most teachers and schools have insisted in retaining a failed American model. Educational reform in the United States is very difficult.
I was once optimistic and believed that if we built a model program at California State University Northridge that institutions of higher education would examine the model. We have been extremely successful offering 166 sections per semester – employing 28 tenure track and over adjunct professors. Like they used to say in the army – never happen G.I. – not in our time.
My first tenure track position at the state college level was at Dominguez Hills State College. I had high hopes that I would be able to start a Mexican American Studies program there. The college was first scheduled to open on Paloverdes Peninsula, a wealthy sector of Los Angeles. It would be the 18th campus in the statewide system. However, land values soared on the peninsula. This led the California State College and University Board of Trustees to settle “on a 346-acre campus in Carson, overlooking junk yards, oil wells and tract housing.” What saved the college was the Watts Riots that pointed to the need for the site.
Its first president Leo Cain, a leader in special education, had hopes of making into a liberal college with experimental courses. In an interview Cain said that there was considerable discussion that the curricular offerings would be interdisciplinary. “The two issues that we talked about a lot were the interdisciplinary part…and the second issue was…we would not have a School of Education. We would make teacher education interdisciplinary and we would have all segments of the college work on the teacher education program. It was interesting, but it didn’t really work out that way, as you know.”
Cain had earned his bachelor’s degree at Chico State and master’s and doctoral degrees at Stanford. He also taught in public schools, and served in the Navy during World War II. He wanted to build a “small college” for undergraduates within the larger College that would be an experimental laboratory for higher educa¬tion – “this college-within-a-college will test a variety of curricular plans and will serve as a training ground for graduate students planning a career in college teaching.” Cain retired before this was full implemented.
I came out of an interdisciplinary background. I had a Master of Arts from Cal State LA in American history and an MA and PhD from USC in Latin American Studies that included History (Latin American and Mexican), International Relations, Spanish American and Brazilian Literature.
At Dominguez Hills we had extensive discussions on the curriculum. In essence the student was required to have two majors – an Area Studies and a discipline. At first I believed that this would be compatible for the creation of Mexican American Studies. However, there was dissatisfaction among the disparate disciplines as well as power struggles. As an assistant professor I was an outsider.
At the time the Mexican population in the surrounding area was not large with most Mexican Americans went to Long Beach State. So when the opportunity to go to San Fernando State College presented itself with the specific mandate to start a MAS program I accepted. The San Fernando Valley had a growing Mexican American population and it was home.
It almost seems ridiculous that at this time educators question what area studies are. Frantz Fanon, a trained psychiatrist, acknowledged when he moved to Algeria that he had to learn the national culture of the the people. He had to learn the language, history and culture of the people before he could understand and cure them. Apparently most educators do not hold themselves to the same standard.