Asian studies deserves a chance

California State University, Los Angeles will suspend their Asian and Asian American Studies program for the next three years despite its large Asian American population and protests from students, faculty and the greater Los Angeles community.

Putting a hold on this program now is myopic, detrimental to the quality of higher education and ultimately racist.

Once when I was in elementary school, I got into an argument with a classmate who would not believe that I was Korean because he had never heard of Korea. He accused me of lying and told me there was no such country. I told him to go find himself a stupid map (among other things).

Looking back, I don’t blame him for not knowing things he was never taught.

A 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report states Los Angeles County has the largest Asian American population in the entire country, representing nearly 15 percent of Angelenos, yet the history books used in the Los Angeles Unified School District don’t mention much about us.

The few things I learned, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese Internment during World War II, almost convinced me that Asian Americans are not welcome to participate in society.

Through the Asian American studies program here at CSUN I have learned about history and society from the perspective of the Asian American experience. I have access not only to a few pages, but books, films and discussions that have allowed me to participate in ways I could not have imagined before.

Unfortunately, some leaders in higher education do not understand the importance and relevance of ethnic studies to student success.

CSULA’s dean of the College of Natural and Social Sciences, James Henderson, proposed the freeze last November on the grounds that doing so will help the program grow—it has graduated only five majors and two minors since 2005 and currently has just 13 majors and eight minors. He announced the faculty should utilize the time to re-evaluate the program and could reapply when the suspension ends.

Henderson’s decision does not address the real cause of the program’s small numbers, which is severe lack of institutional support. According to AAAS director, Dr. Chorswang Ngin, the program was originally proposed in 1994 by 10 faculty members, but was met with apathy by the administration.

Ngin and her colleagues decided to pursue development of the program and taught the first ten courses pro bono. The only financial support the university offers is $4,000 per year so that Ngin can take one course off from teaching anthropology to run the program. They have so far relied on external grants to keep it going.

Low enrollment is due to CSULA’s General Education criteria that do not allow students to take AAAS courses to fulfill GE requirements. This discourages students from taking classes in the program and makes completing a degree more difficult for AAAS majors and minors.

How can a program be expected to thrive in popularity when it was never given sufficient tools in the first place? The solution proposed by Henderson will only reverse the progress it has made and impede the faculty from developing a better curriculum for students.

By not supporting the growth of the AAAS program, Henderson and his associates have expressed to the students and surrounding community that the Asian American experience is not significant enough to study. They show this disregard in an area with a high Asian American population and imply we are not as American as any other group. The real motivation for eliminating the program is more likely discrimination than academic concern.

Ten years later, I no longer worry about anyone questioning the existence of Korea. However, I suspect Dean Henderson needs convincing that my history, identity and participation in this country is real, worthy of study and not to be reserved for just a few pages.

  • David the small-L libertarian

    “Putting a hold on this program now is myopic, detrimental to the quality of higher education and ultimately racist.”

    Why is it racist, Mr. Oh? Was it racist to start such a program in the first place or only because it’s being suspended? Throwing out the race card is rather unbecoming.

  • Frank p.

    Hansook this is great. You know a similar thing is happening here with the queer studies program except we are able to flexibly take the requirements necessary to graduate with a minor the issue is that the program lacks a space for community and sustainabiliity. What are CSULA students doing to try to save the program?

  • José Beltrán

    Great article Hansook. Keep doing what you do.