Ethnicity

Professor Perspectives: Robert André LaFleur

I have studied culture, ethnicity, history, and “otherness” all my life. I majored in history and anthropology at a reasonably good college, and was taught by gifted professors to think deeply about the manner in which language, ethnicity, and sense of place can affect everything from the way we might interpret national histories to the makeup of our neighborhoods. The questions were everywhere—in the water, as we said—and nothing seemed more natural than engaging them through the rigorous yet-(potentially)-sensitive lenses of history, anthropology, sociology, economics, literature…and so forth.

Imagine my surprise twenty-four autumns ago when I began my graduate studies with a professor named Allan Bloom. He had just written an odd little tome that exploded into a bestseller. Imagine my reaction when (just weeks after being accepted into the program in which he taught) I read these lines from his book, “The Closing of the American Mind.”

“One of the techniques of opening young people up is to require a college course in a non-Western culture. Although many of the persons teaching such courses are real scholars and lovers of the areas they study, in every case I have seen this requirement—when there are so many other things that can and should be learned that are not required, when philosophy and religion are no longer required—has a demagogic intention. The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better.”

In his better moments, Bloom would relent a bit, and say that his biggest problem with ethnic studies programs was that they tended to be short on academic rigor and rather longer on a kind of activism not found in, say, history, philosophy, or literature departments. That was as tolerant as he could be, and it occurred thrice in the five years I knew him. But what of the basic fact—which he could not and did not, eventually, deny—that matters of ethnicity were everywhere in higher education? They affected even his own life, and in profound fashion. What about that?

Let’s just say that we sparred a bit, with no real sense of closure.

Since then, I have continued to study a riveting world of similarity and difference. At the moment, I am writing a book (co-authored with a fine Beloit College colleague) on ethnic groups of Asia. Having studied these matters since a time predating my exposure to Bloom, it has become second nature for me to read “between the lines” of the ethnic “narratives” found in China, Japan, Korea, and other East Asian territories. In ways as disconcerting as they are profound, governments in all three major nations have (this is my opinion) bungled government policy dealing with ethnic groups precisely because they have sought to force their own narrative onto a complex array of issues that will not tolerate simplicity—or ignorance. Open the paper (or access your news organization’s website) and check “Western China.” Just look.

Other essays in this Round Table issue will surely address these matters with regard to the United States and Western Europe. The demographics cannot be ignored. It would be well worth the effort to extend those discussions to Africa, the South Pacific, Latin America, and other areas.

Here is what I know after over a quarter century of working through this territory. Much as I respect Allan Bloom (and that itself is hardly common for people in my line of work), he missed the point here. Even at his most reasonable, he worried about the “programmatic” issues surrounding ethnic studies programs. He wondered if they could be as rigorous as more established subjects. These were his thoughts on what I take to be the “good days.” They are echoed by administrators and professors all over the country and the world right up until now.

I will conclude here with what I told Allan Bloom back then, and I offer it as advice from the trenches to Beloit College:

“Ethnicity isn’t going away—anywhere; anytime. We could continue to ignore it, but let’s consider how well that has gone in the last few centuries. But what if we chose to do it really well—to study it deeply, rigorously, and with compassion? What if we decided to give it the attention it deserves? What if we took it seriously?”

Take your pick. I know mine.

Robert André LaFleur
Professor of History and Anthropology

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