Black studies today

For more than a decade, students at Cleveland State University in Ohio have been required to take two courses in Afro-American studies as part of their four-year program. The rationale, which grew out of the civil rights movement, was that all students should be aware of the problems faced by Cleveland's large black population.

Now that requirement is being challenged. The school's engineering and business departments oppose it, saying that two four-hour courses are too much to ask of a student facing stiff competition from graduates of other professional programs. Some faculty members feel that courses which satisfy the requirement have not lived up to either their purpose or to college standards. Others find that, as the product of a distant decade of social turbulence, the requirement assumes a political interest that many of the school's mostly white students no longer have.

In many ways, the confrontation at Cleveland State is typical of challenges facing Afro-American studies thoughout the United States.

Some 15 years after many of these programs began, their directors are finding that today's career-oriented student has little interest in social issues. A rush to establish black studies left some classes and programs superficial, while many students entered the programs to make a political statement more than out of any deep academic interest. Also, budget cuts have led some colleges to combine their programs with larger departments which were often unsympathetic to black studies as a discipline.

Yet, just as Cleveland State appears certain to maintain an Afro-American studies requirement in some form, there is little doubt about the future of black studies. Despite a weeding-out period that witnessed a significant decline in the numbers both of programs and students, historians and professors inside and outside the discipline agree that black studies are now an established part of academia.

''Black studies are now a widely respected part of the historical discipline, '' says Samuel R. Gammon, executive director of the American Historical Association. ''It is definitely a well-recognized field whose distinguished specialists have had a significant impact on our study of American history.''

According to Dr. Gammon and others, the difficulties faced by Afro-American studies reflect a decline in study of the humanities in general. Often comparing Afro-American studies with women's studies, they add that it is not uncommon for quickly expanding fields soon after to undergo a period of contraction.

In the early '70s there were more than 600 black-studies programs, but today the number is 525 and ''holding pretty constant,'' according to Joseph Russell, executive director of the National Council for Black Studies. Although no national statistics are kept on the number of students enrolled in black-studies courses, Dr. Russell says the number at Indiana University, where he heads the Afro-American Studies department, has fallen from 1,000 a semester in the '70s to about 700 a semester now.

At Harvard University, some black studies courses continue to ''generate a great deal of interest among students,'' according to department chairman Nathan Huggins. But the number of majors in the field has fluctuated between eight and 10 for the past few years, a number Dr. Huggins attributes in part to the ''single-mindedly preprofessional'' nature of most students at a school such as Harvard.

But Dr. Huggins, who is largely credited with putting a crisis-racked program on solid academic footing since coming to the university in 1980, says he sees a silver lining. A ''depoliticization'' of the program means that black students no longer feel compelled to major in Afro-American studies to make a political statement, as he senses they once did. ''Students who are (majoring) with us now do so out of serious academic interest,'' he comments. About half the majors are white.

Several other black-studies professors cited increasing white enrollment as a sign of acceptance into the academic mainstream. In some cases this is a direct result of a university decision that black studies courses can fulfill humanities requirements. There is also a feeling that in some cases white students from wealthier families face less parental pressure than black students to stick to preprofessional courses.

Black-studies academics generally said they believe the wisest path for their programs is one of continued integration with the larger university community. The growing strength of their own programs had made most of them less wary of other academic departments. Others said tightening academic budgets have made increased cooperation necessary.

But Dr. Russell says he remains wary when programs are ''consolidated'' with larger departments. He points particularly to the Northwest, where he says budget restraints have forced several programs to work under departments that have historically been ''insensitive'' to black studies. Rather than retrench, Dr. Russell says, black studies should instead be looking to ''solidify its teaching element'' by including PhD programs.

There is no general agreement on this issue, however. Debate has pitted those stressing the importance of a program to train the next generation of Afro-American scholars against those who fear that such programs would only lead again to isolation of Afro-American studies and more unemployed PhDs.

Despite numerous master's programs, there has never been a PhD program in Afro-American studies. The University of California at Berkeley, however, has just created a comparative ethnic studies doctoral program, with Afro-American studies as one of its major components.

William Banks, professor and former chairman of Afro-American studies at UC Berkeley, says ''there is a need for people who can do serious scholarly work (in Afro-American studies), especially at urban colleges.''

Dr. Banks says the Berkeley proposal was set up as a comparative ethnic program after research showed a growing need for professors trained in that field. He expects the program to allow greater breadth than, say, a PhD program in history with an emphasis in black studies, since many faculty members will be drawn from a number of departments. He says this last point also means the program will be ''cost effective.''

But Harvard's Dr. Huggins says he remains opposed to establishing such programs. He feels that appointing faculty members with training in more traditional disciplines encourages the ''meshing'' of Afro-American studies into the larger university that he favors. And, citing his own perception of the PhD job market, he adds, ''One must look at the problems already faced by doctoral programs in such fields as American studies. It's not easy for them to get their people out into the world.''

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