Here at Lawrence, we have all sorts of general education requirements. There’s global, there’s lab, there’s quantitative and of course there’s diversity. But I would argue that we are missing something in our curriculum that is relatively covered by diversity but could be covered even more. What I am referring to is a requirement to take either a gender studies or an ethnic studies class. Now sure, getting through the general education requirements is already difficult and a little bit tedious, but I think this is actually an essential topic.
Now I will admit I have my own biases, seeing as I am a gender studies major, but I am not just being partial because I think that my major is the most important. I think that classes like these should be required because it would help us understand each other and our society better. Ethnic studies and gender studies involve a lot of critique and questioning of our current world as it is today, which is essential because too often we take things for granted when we don’t fully understand their origins. We take gender and sex as given and static categories, for example, when we can see in gender studies that this is not truly the case. We can see a very wide variation in terms of sex characteristics and gender presentation both within our society and outside of it. Similarly, we take as a given that our justice system is mostly fair and equal, when ethnic studies can show us that it is not.
These understandings, while they may seem trivial if you have plans to study things like biology or physics, are actually vitally important, even in STEM fields. This is because these concepts will help everyone understand the context that they work in and how they can help make their work environments and the world in general a better and more equitable place. A white male mathematician working in a department of all white men might not question why or how that came to be the case unless he took a gender or ethnic studies class. If he took those classes and absorbed the literature, he might better notice the lack of diversity and, instead of blaming the unrepresented groups, consider how he might better promote a more diverse faculty. Similarly, a white doctor might consider the fact that doctors are more predisposed to doubting pain in people of color and try to notice how they behave differently. Education in both of these examples might lead to better work environments and better health for many individuals. If people start criticizing practices in their workplace and in their communities that exclude and erase people, we have a chance to actually fix the issue. However, if we are not committed to requiring these classes, they cannot do the work that they were designed for.
This would also not be the most difficult requirement. Ethnic studies and gender studies overlap with a bunch of different fields, such as biology, sociology and film studies. We do not just need the inclusion of a gendered element—it has to also break down the structures of power in place and the problems with our current understandings. The theoretical required class must think critically about what we take for granted and try to dismantle hurtful thought processes that people are indoctrinated into. We also cannot simply throw the requirement in there without any thought. Students at Lawrence are exceedingly busy and we need to find better ways to support the incorporation of these courses. We should be able to maximize flexibility while also steering people towards disciplines and ways of thinking they might otherwise avoid. In the end, requiring these courses can do more than get you a job. They can also help you make our society just generally better.
Taking my first gender studies course was truly life-changing for me in so many ways, not that I think that everyone will grow to love the subjects of ethnic studies and gender studies as I have. Rather, I find that I have a much better grasp of what is hurting people in our society and a better understanding of what it means to be a kind and caring human being. At the end of the day, I find that far more helpful than any other general education requirement because it has so much more potential beyond just finding a job. We often forget that the purpose of college is not to get the most high-paying job we can possibly find. The purpose of college is to learn, and if we cannot foster an environment of learning how to navigate the contentious issues of race and gender, then I think that we have failed.