Five Minutes With
AUDIO: Five Minutes With Eddie Glaude
I recently spoke with Eddie S. Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Glaude is also the chair of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies. We talked about Ethnic Studies Week, an effort put together by educators protesting Arizona’s recent ban on ethnic studies and the revisions to Texas’s public school curriculum. Glaude argues that ethnic studies programs are a crucial part of comprehensive education, and that young people can act to preserve ethnic studies.
[Note: Shani Hilton worked in Princeton University’s Office of Communications for several years.]
SHANI HILTON: Hello and welcome to Five Minutes With...a podcast where we at Campus Progress take a few minutes to talk to newsmakers and experts on subjects that are important to young people. My name is Shani Hilton and I'm the associate editor of Campus Progress.org. And today I'm talking to Eddie Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Dr. Glaude is also the chair of Princeton's Center for African American Studies.
Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today, Dr. Glaude. How are you?
EDDIE GLAUDE: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
HILTON: So, I'm just going to jump right into the questions.
HILTON: So to start, Ethnic Studies Week which will run from October 4th until October 7th was created in response to the passing of a pair of laws—one in Texas, and one in Arizona —that would eliminate or limit ethnic studies in public schools because they potentially promote resentment or advocate for racial solidarity. What do you think about those fears and do you think there's anything to them?
GLAUDE: The short answer to the last question is no. I don't think there is much to these concerns. But I think these fears speak volumes. There is a sense that among a certain segment of our country those racial and ethnic differences pose a threat. That particular histories, the specific cultures, those histories that are often fraught with violence and contain within them historical moments that call into question our commitment to democracy, for some people, warrant concern and censure. And what that suggests to me is that people don't want to look at the facts of American history squarely in the face…that they want to deodorize our journey up 'til now. And they presume that anyone who enters into the public domain of the US must be evacuated of their specificity and assume, shall we say, or assimilateinto what they consider to be the standard and the best way of being American. So, I think the fears speak volumes about a commitment to a conception of America that we want to challenge daily.
HILTON: Over the past few decades, ethnic studies have often served as a counter to a predominantly white or Western narrative of history and culture. With an increase in multiracial families and growing racial and cultural diversity in the United States, is that purpose still relevant or do you see these programs changing their focus? And if so, to what?
GLAUDE: Well, I want to challenge the premise of the question. I think ethnic studies were—and continue to be—challenges to a dominant Western narrative that violence in some instances, or ignores in other instances the existence, the contribution, the significance of ethnic and racial differences in the formation of the US - and in the importance of the world in which we live. If we only think of our ethnic studies programs or African American studies programs as only our programs as to manage difference and talk about multiculturalism, then we don't understand they're role in how we think about the production of knowledge. So, it cuts even more fundamentally than just simply 'How do we manage difference?' It goes to 'What do we think constitutes knowledge?' 'What do we think stands as a liberal arts education?' And what we believe, what I believe is that ethnic studies program and African American studies programs are essential contributors to a liberal arts education. They make possible a kind of cosmopolitan necessary for a world that is as differentiated and complex as our own. So, I don't know if we need to change our focus because of increasing diversity. I think what we need to do is to continue to challenge the how we think knowledge is produced.
HILTON: To go more specifically to the situation in Texas where the recent curriculum changes from the spring are leading to much more conservative, basically white textbooks. That could have huge effect on the rest of the country, since many textbook producers are located in that state. So, how can academic freedom and the liberal arts education that you’re talking about be sustained under that kind of pressure?
GLAUDE: Well, first of all, that proves the point I was making earlier, right? That when you political constituencies bringing pressure to bear on how we teach subject matters, it can generate particular kinds of outcome. So, we get a sense of how knowledge is produced, of how power, how ideological commitments can put pressure on the truth. So, we have to be diligent and we have to be ready to fight them in this regard. I think we have to understand - I say this with some trepidation. We have to understand that freedom is a practice; its not a possession. So, we have to work hard and diligently to protect academic freedom, such that we can provide an environment for our student, for ourselves, to think carefully and in an open-minded way about a world that's terribly complex. And that can't be easily settled by purported truths that are held by folk who want to seek comfort in their narrow views. I guess the short answer to the question is: those of us who are committed to the life of mind, those of us who are committed to the democratic virtue of free and open inquiry, those of us who are committed to the idea that each of us has a opportunity - or ought to have the opportunity - to grow by being exposed to different idea - we need to mobilize and fight what's going on in Texas with all our heart and energy.
HILTON: Campus Progress is very committed to young people taking action, being knowledgeable, being smart, and knowing how to positively influence their own world. What advice would you give to young people – high school students, college students, people who aren’t in school - who want to preserve ethnic studies and just have a say in their own education?
GLAUDE: First, I think we need to resist the kind of caricature of ethnic studies. The caricature is this: that its only really about particular groups studying themselves and a "feel-good" session. That ethnic studies is much more complicated than that. In fact, I would urge young folk to understand ethnic studies as a crucial component of what is means to be a reasonable human being, of what it means to understand the world. In other words, ethnic studies play a crucial role in a liberal arts education. So, we have to change the terms of the argument. This is not a feel-good session. This is about how we truly understand the formation of our country; how we truly understand the complexity of our world—that's the first thing. And if education signals to our children—and to us—that what we want is narrow, provincial folk who are open to dismissing people who are not like them, who resist ideas that unsettle them, who want to shut themselves off from the world - as if they were still in Plato's cave. Then we understand that the version of education dooms us, in terms of the prospect of our future. I would say young folk need to change the frame of the way we think about ethnic studies. And insist that education is all about who we take ourselves to be as human beings and to insist on education on opening the world to us, expanding our horizons—not shutting us out. And if we hold that view, we will fight with every ounce of energy we have to resist these folks who just want to simply reproduce what I take to be mean-spiritedness in the world.
HILTON: What do you think is motivating people who don't see the value of ethnic studies?
GLAUDE: What's motivating them is a kind of narrow parochialism. We need to make a distinction between parochialism and provincialism. Parochialism is when you choose to be narrow. We can be provincialists by accident, by birth. But parochialism is when you choose to not be open to the grandness an diversity of the world. I think that there's a kind of Faustian bargain at the heart of this sort of thing, right? There's a price that these folks exact from those of us who come from different backgrounds. What I mean by that is that there's a price they exact from us when we enter the public domain. And that is to say that they want evacuate, empty out anything that is distinctive about who we are. This is not just simply identity politics where people are over in the corner patting each other's back saying, 'Hey, whitey!' That's not what its all about. And if people think about it that kind of way, then they really haven't understand what ethnic studies or African American studies is all about.
HILTON: So, is the burden, you think, on young people or people advocating for ethnic studies to help other people understand that it is more than just, as you called it, 'a feel-good session'?
GLAUDE: I think in part it's our burden. I think in part it's our burden to insist that people rightly characterize what we do, and what were studying, and what were reading. And also think that its important for people to understand that the study of Native Americans, the study of Latinos or Hispanic Americans, or the study of African Americans—we can go down the line - are points of entry, reasonable and powerful points of entry to tell a broader story, a more meaningful story about the formation of American life and American democracy.
HILTON: Well, I can just wrap up now. Or if you have anything else to say...
GLAUDE: No, I really appreciate the conversation. I want young people to take the reins, to do this work and this advocacy with passion and with persistence and a commitment that will shake the world absolutely. That will shake the very foundation of these folks.
HILTON: That is what Campus Progress is all about.
HILTON: I just want to thank you again for talking with us today...
GLAUDE: 'Preciate ya.
HILTON: And it's been great. And that's it.
Shani is the associate editor of CampusProgress.org. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.