Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Black Students and Black Studies — JBHE Dismantles the Myth

October 30th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

In a brief report titled, “Banish the Stereotype That African-American College Students Tend to Major in Black Studies,” the current Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) weekly bulletin published these findings:

New Department of Education figures on degree attainments show that the stereotypical view of the African-American college student rushing into black studies majors is totally false. Only 1,051, or 0.8 percent, of all African-American bachelor’s degree recipients received their degree in any type of ethnic studies discipline. Therefore, only one out of every 130 bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks was in ethnic studies. In fact, there are more blacks who majored in the physical sciences — a field in which there are very few African Americans — than African Americans who earned their degree in black studies. There are more than six times as many blacks majoring in computer science and more than five times as many blacks majoring in the biological sciences than in black studies.

I am not sure of the extent to which this stereotype has penetrated the national consciousness. If it is indeed a widely held stereotype that African American college students tend to major in Black Studies, then I applaud the efforts of the JBHE to debunk this belief. I cannot help but question, however, the subtext of this report, that it somehow diminishes Black people to be so heavily associated with Black studies programs.

My perspective, after all, is informed both as my current position as professor in the humanities and a my past experiences as an undergraduate admission officer. As someone who has followed the undergraduate careers of the Black students on at least four campuses with great interest, the fact that there are several times more Black students majoring in the sciences than in an interdisciplinary (and partially humanities-based) degree program like Black studies comes as no surprise. I and most of the African American English majors that I have encounted over my years as a professor have noted with great disappointment the dearth of African American students who choose humanities fields (even the traditionally oversubscribed field of English) as their academic focus.

I and several of my colleagues of color have noticed how much more willing Black students are to major in science and social sciences fields than to ever even consider at major in the humanities or the arts. I am grateful for the existence of Black studies programs, because it is through these interdisciplinary majors that many African American studies get their only exposure to African American literature, U.S. Black and African art, and African American and African dance.

I cannot tell you how many Black economics, psychology, biology, pre-law, and pre-business students I encounter who, in their final year of college — after taking an African American literature or music course as a lark — express regret that they never considered majoring in a literature- or arts- based field.

It is only after such students enter law school, business school, or a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program and encounter classmates who were English, History, Art, Modern Languages, and Ethnic Studies majors that they begin to realize that the critical thinking skills, creativity, and communication skills that are nurtured in many humanities and arts fields can make such programs as practical a choice as a science- or social science-based major.

I understand what is at stake for many African American students. For many students of color, college is not simply a matter of learning for learning’s sake. Many Black students and their families are depending on the increased earning potential and the promise of upward mobility that higher education can provide; but it is my special interest, as a Black professor and mentor, to make sure that students understand the breath of their options.

Success doesn’t have to mean majoring in something that ends in -ology. It might, and for students who have a true passion for one or more of the sciences and social sciences, such plans of study are wonderful choice. But for those who are quietly nurturing a talent in music or art, a love of literature or history or a great aptitude for learning languages, the knowledge that these fields can also provide that all important key to success could very well change their lives.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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Posted in African American Students, Black Students, Black Studies, Higher Education, Humanities

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  2. Jarod Hightower-Mills

    I think this article was written in the wake of thinkers like Richard Rodriguez coming out to decry the futility of ethnic studies. I am a black male graduation senior and French major at Claremont McKenna College, and I have seen much that same thing in my four year in college. Most of the students of color that I know are majoring in economics, government, or a scientific discipline. While many have a passion for their subject, others see it as a practical way to get ahead.

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