Green: Missed the Forest for the Trees

by Isaac Green | 5/25/15 7:01pm

Since before I matriculated, I have been troubled by our profound inability to engage in respectful discourse when it comes to questions of institutional change on campus. In a rough sketch, the problem often plays out like this — a small group of passionate students agitates for change, often in a well thought out and productive manner — though my most recent column “What Is Derby?” demonstrates that I don’t always believe that to be the case. Yet even when the student campaign is focused and respectful, a large portion of students seem to take personal affront to it. Michelle Gil’s ’16 May 21 column, “What Dartmouth Does Teach Me,” seems to typify this part of the problem with our inability to discuss and engage with these calls for change.

In her column, Gil looks at “What Dartmouth Doesn’t Teach Me,” a recent student-driven campaign to strengthen academic offerings in Asian-American studies on campus. Rather than engaging productively with the driving force of the campaign — that the largest minority group on campus is the least represented in the course catalog — Gil instead picks out individual statements made by students in the social media campaign and proceeds to dismiss them one by one as “ridiculous and obscure…fairly esoteric subjects,” “not reflections of the College’s failure,” “personal” and otherwise present as a part of many currently-offered classes — if you look closely enough.

Gil’s column exemplifies a ubiquitous inability to see criticism of certain aspects of the College as anything but a sweeping indictment of the institution as a whole. Gil needlessly rushes to the defense of “the professors, students and overall Dartmouth community.” She states from the beginning that rather than looking at “the overall argument that a specific Asian-American ethnic and cultural studies program should be created” she will merely “argue that the campaign is flawed.” Yet this seems to me such a monumental waste of an opportunity to examine the “overall argument.”

Pointing out a legitimate and obvious deficiency in course offerings through a focused and well thought-out campaign of personal testimonials does not impugn the College’s honor — far from it. The campaign shows a commitment to ensuring that Dartmouth does not fall behind its peer institutions — Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Yale Universities and the University of Pennsylvania have far stronger Asian-American studies programs than the College — and that students have the opportunity have an in-depth engagement in those academic disciplines that interest them. Every student on this campus should have the opportunity to learn from an expert about their own people’s pasts with a distinct perspective from other academic disciplines. That’s not a radical thing to ask for nor an unreasonable demand to make. We have a Jewish studies program, an African and African-American studies program and a Native American studies program — we should have an Asian-American studies program as well.

The push for such a program at the College has been ongoing for more than 15 years. I sympathize with the challenge the organizers of this campaign face. They make a social media campaign to spread awareness, open it to anyone, makes legitimate points in a reasoned way about the educational opportunities individuals feel the College is failing to offer them and, instead of receiving support, their interests are dismissed as overly obscure and uninteresting. Gil’s argument suggests that anything not taught from a white, Western perspective is esoteric and that most of the details these minority students need to fill in their cultural histories can be found in the footnotes of American history textbooks and lectures on 20th-century United States foreign policy.

I know Gil is intensely committed to this College and speaks for many as a voice pushing Dartmouth to be the best that it can be. In this case, however, she has erred by delegitimizing the interests of her peers. Her argument — and the myriad arguments like it that I have heard over the years at this school — misses the forest for the trees. Caught up in defending her education and personal experience, she fails to see that the best version of Dartmouth would include a strong Asian-American studies program.