Ethnic Studies

Regret Ward Connerly of the University of California is stepping into another controversy. Mr. Connerly, an African-American, was a major force in the university's campaign to end racial preferences in admissions and hiring policies.

That effort to rein in affirmative action culminated in a state ballot issue that largely excluded race as a factor in framing state policy.

His new project, now in its earliest stages, is directed at the ethnic studies programs common in California's public universities, as at colleges throughout the country.

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This is sensitive ground. These academic programs exist, as many affirmative-action programs exist, to adjust a historical imbalance. There's little doubt that through most of their history American institutions of learning shortchanged the injustices suffered, and the contributions made, by African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and native Americans.

Ethnic-studies courses that have multiplied in recent decades were an inevitable, and necessary, correction. And nonwhites aren't the only groups represented: Jewish studies, Irish studies, and many others flourish.

Connerly sees two dangers: (1) that these studies typically draw students from the ethnic background being studied, and thus tend to resegregate campuses, and (2) that the courses are of questionable academic rigor.

Both are legitimate concerns. But they may not be sufficient grounds for questioning the courses' existence. It's probably natural that blacks, for instance, gravitate to courses that examine the history of blacks in America. But the material taught is, if anything, even more important for the education of white students. The history of African-Americans is shared by all Americans; it helps shape all of society. At the least, such material should be incorporated into surveys of history, culture, and society so that as many young Americans as possible are exposed to it.

At the same time, more in-depth courses should be retained for those who want to specialize. And, in every case, the academic demands - research and writing - should be on a par with university standards.

If ethnic studies are taught for the right scholarly - as opposed to political - reasons, and taught to the wide range of students the material deserves, they have a legitimate place in the academic world.

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