Cornell Students ‘Demand’ an Asian-American Studies Major

From "any person, any study" to "one person, one major"

Students associated with the Asian Pacific Americans for Action at Cornell University (APAA) are demanding the University create an Asian-American Studies major beginning next semester.

In a letter, anonymous students argue that, “The University must give Asian American Studies more resources, because students want to learn about these histories.”

“The current program is crucial in allowing students the opportunity to engage with the experiences of a diverse and varied community that comprises almost 25% of Cornell. For too long, the majority of these voices have been absent from or silenced on a local and national scale. We demand that the University hear us as we call for the creation of an Asian American Studies Major,” the letter continues.

The letter and accompanying Facebook event advertising a rally to be held at this week’s Student Assembly meeting cite interdisciplinary scholarship, representation, expression, necessity, and relevance as the five reasons for this new major.

“Founded in 1987, the Cornell Asian American Studies Program was the first of its kind in the Ivy League. However, since its creation and despite a growing demand and interest in Asian American Studies in recent years, the Program has remained under-resourced and understaffed as a program that has one of the smallest operating budgets in the College of Arts and Sciences,” the letter reads.

The letter also cites the demands of Black Students United at Cornell University (BSU) from last fall semester; that group demanded the creation of Latino Studies and American Indian Studies majors in addition to Asian-American Studies by the end of 2016. The administration made no known public comments about BSU’s demands.

Despite all its flowery language, the letter does not make a concrete case for the creation of an Asian American Studies major.

The letter points out that since 1997 the number of students enrolled in Asian American department classes has doubled, but in a previous section it also complains that all 4-5 classes in this department are cross-listed with other departments such as anthropology and history (i.e. take one course and it can count for credit in either of the departments). With this arrangement, it is unknown whether the increased student enrollment in Asian-American Studies classes is due to greater student interest in Asian American studies itself or if it is due to greater interest in the departments which have courses cross-listed with Asian American Studies. An overall increase in the prevalence of cross-listed courses could also explain this trend.

Even if interest in the program has grown, it is nowhere near as intense as student interest in business courses, especially finance, and computer science. Obviously, this is because, in general, business and STEM majors prepare students for higher-paying jobs outside the realm of academia. If Cornell were to create an Asian-American Studies major, it would be almost irresponsible: allowing parents/students to pay $60,000+ a year to take classes in, basically, what it means to be Asian-American. The curriculum can be learned by befriending an Asian-American.

In fact, if students do want to learn about the Asian world, they can already major in or take classes in the highly successful China and Asia-Pacific Studies department at Cornell, which boasts a finely structured cirriculum requiring four years of Chinese language training and semesters spent in both Beijing and Washington, D.C. The department website boasts that its graduates go into fields ranging from consulting to diplomacy to financial services.

Most likely, there is but a handful of students who would actually want an Asian-American Studies major. One might guess the number is no greater than 20.

What justifies the creation of a major with no real-word applications; that is a simplified derivative of an already successful and thriving major; and that only a very small number of students would pursue?

The students behind this push make reference to Cornell’s famous “any person, any study” motto, but they misunderstand it. This guiding principle does not mean Cornell must create a major to satisfy every single person’s particular academic interests. In other words, it doesn’t mean “one student, one major.”

9 Comments on Cornell Students ‘Demand’ an Asian-American Studies Major

  1. Uh, Chinese studies and Chinese-American studies are not to be confused. Just as, say, an Italian (in Italy) and an Italian-American (born or raised in the U.S.) are not the same.

  2. whatamireading // March 8, 2016 at 7:26 pm // Reply

    “The curriculum can be learned by befriending an Asian-American.”
    Obviously the author thought the journalism curriculum could be leaned by befriending a blogger.

  3. Chosen Cheng, EE'70 // March 8, 2016 at 7:48 pm // Reply

    What career would an Asian-American studies major lead to? Would it be some professional field? What Asian parent would want their child to major in Asian-American studies? They would not want to brag about it to anyone let alone pay for it.

    • whatamireading // March 9, 2016 at 9:11 am // Reply

      Totally agree. Someone’s education is only something for their parents to brag about. If they can’t do that, then there is no point in learning anything.

      • Chosen Cheng, EE'70 // March 9, 2016 at 11:14 am // Reply

        Sarcasm? Asian parents view education in aspirational terms to help the next generation succeed economically. There are lots of ways for students wanting to better understand their roots to do so without adding yet another degree program that few would major in and result in added tuition for all.

        • whatamireading // March 9, 2016 at 6:42 pm // Reply

          Yes, sarcasm.
          1) You do realize that AAS is not only for Asian-Americans (or Asians) to learn about their own roots, right?
          2) The fact that there are lots of ways to learn about something, including some ways that aren’t open to all (such as being from an Asian-American family) does not mean it should not be taught at a university. Or does the availability of self-teaching books, automatic translators, or youtube channels about history doesn’t make each of the covered topics moot for higher education?
          3) To play into the Asian-American stereotype (which is precisely one thing that kind of class can help deconstruct instead of reinforce), a major (whose existence, by the way, does not make it compulsory for people to enroll in it) can be cumulated with one or even two other majors for both the overachievers out there and those who are smart enough to complement their professional training with a less pragmatic enrichment.
          4) How would the opening of a major increase tuition for all, exactly?
          5) The prosaic view you seem to be pushing on higher education is a saddening one. Education, as the name indicates, does not equate the mere acquisition of skills with the sole purpose of increasing one’s income. A person who graduates from Cornell without getting anything else from the experience, both on a personal level and as a member of a larger society, did waste her time and money.

          • Chosen Cheng, EE'70 // March 9, 2016 at 9:24 pm //

            I read with interest the points you are making and am trying to pay no attention to your ad homineum subtext messaging. All I can say is before offering such a major I hope Cornell does a market research survey to see if this is a good move. Long term there must be a minimum enrollment for any program to justify its existence.

          • whatamireading // March 10, 2016 at 1:36 am //

            It was not my intention to make an ad hominem attack, and if it was perceived as such, I apologize. The survey you propose is a reasonable measure, the question indeed needs to be researched.

  4. your token asian american friend // March 21, 2016 at 11:15 pm // Reply

    Wow, what a thoughtful and well-executed satire piece !

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