So, through a series of events not entirely within my control, I find myself this semester studying “American Studies” at Scripps College (one of the other colleges in the Claremont University Consortium, along with my college, Harvey Mudd College). The particular focus of my American Studies course, which was listed in the course catalog as “Introduction to American Studies” is “Producing Race in Los Angeles”. I did not go into this class with particularly high expectations and, well, let me just say that it has been confirming my expectations every step of the way.
As you might expect from a class on race in Los Angeles, we started off the class talking about Rodney King and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Along with a number of articles, we also attended a showing of the film Twilight: Los Angeles, which is a film of a one-woman play of a series of interviews with people connected with the riots. Which sounds convoluted, but was actually effective — I think that Anna Deavere Smith did a good job of representing some of the individuals associated with the riots, and how they felt. Of course, I still don’t understand the riots — I just can’t see what possible series of thoughts could lead from “I’m being wronged, physically, legally, and emotiontally” to “Let’s go burn everything!”, but that’s an issue for another day. My reason for this blog post is to discuss the class and the reactions.
The main problem that I have with the reactions that were exhibited by my classmates and professors. I don’t want to demean anybody here, but I really take issue with the allegation that what was being put forth as deep, meaningful comments was really anything other than some intersection of fancy language, obvious points, and unsupported theories. For example, it is a straightforward (and not at all deep) conclusion to say that lack of jobs in inner cities is a contributing factor to urban discontentment. It is, however, a neither deep nor (in my eyes) meaningful thing to talk about the “inner yearning” of people for “safe interaction” with the “social world beyond”.
I suppose part of my frustration with the discourse also comes from the particulars of who is involved. To a (rather good) approximation, the class consists of a group of upper-middle-class white girls sitting around a table discussing why it’s hard to be an inner-city black man. Now, I am certainly no better off than they to discuss such things, but I apparently am sufficiently detached to see the irony of what they’re doing. Coating their words in a layer of specialized terminology and high-syllable-count words certainly doesn’t make it better, either. Two weeks in and, already, this class more than any other is showing me where the perception of college in general and, more specifically, liberal arts as an unproductive pursuit, as an ivory tower full of people whose discourse is so disjoined from reality as to render them almost comical comes from.
I imagine that in this post I sound callous and angry. I probably am coming off as a bit of a jackass. And, well, that’s true. I guess I am. But that’s the answer to your other unspoken question of why I remain in the class. After all, I could just drop the class, move on, and eat the 3 credits. But I’m not going to. I’d really like to be wrong about this field, about these people. I’d like to be shown that this isn’t just academia for its own sake, but that there is something novel and deep to be found here. I don’t know whether or not this is the case, but, well, that’s what I hope.
And that’s it for me. Ciao.