Recent cuts to programs in Black Studies and in Women's and Gender Studies Programs signal broader challenges to the Liberal Arts that further erode higher education in this country. The recent decision to scale back offerings at North Carolina State University, where I earned my master's degree in History, is but one example of a disturbing trend that threatens our future. It also jeopardizes our understanding of the past and has caused me to reflect on the value of my own college experience.
I began college as an architectural design major and although I enjoyed the subject matter and the idea of a career in this area, I quickly learned that with so few available electives that I would miss out on too many fascinating classes and an opportunity to learn more about the world. In sophomore year I switched to a major in Sociology and entered the Liberal Arts college at my university.
I began each semester with a sense of eager anticipation and excitement about what I'd learn about the world in my courses. Astronomy fascinated me, as did a writing seminar on Apartheid in South Africa. The classes I took broadened my horizons. I found myself especially energized by the courses in Africana Studies and in Women's Studies.
I vividly recall many of the books from my Women's Studies class with Professor Biddy Martin, now president of Amherst College. Our readings and discussions examined the ways that feminist politics spoke to not only sexism but also racism and homophobia and fueled my desire to learn more about the world I was entering as a young adult. I also learned to have deep respect for the conceptualization and recognition of sex as political and public. Readings by Allan Bérubé, John D'Emilio, and Kathy Peiss ignited an interest in hidden histories of women, gender, and sexuality.
My developing interests in race and racism led me to classes on family and on historical systems of racial hierarchy in the Africana Studies department with James Turner and Robert L. Harris, Jr, and then gradually to the field of History. Although I am now an historian, in college I took only two courses offered by the History department.
I was fascinated to see how those courses about the past could offer a different perspective on race, gender, and sexuality in the present. In history classes I gravitated to colonial America as a site for exploring our society's roots. I recall examining the case of T. Hall a seventeenth-century Virginian who had lived as a man and also as a woman and who had run into trouble in the community. Hall's punishment, after intensive community scrutiny over Hall's biological sex, to wear elements of both male and female clothing for life, sounded nothing like what I'd heard about colonial America as a child and it planted a seed of interest that later would be developed in graduate school.
The courses that I took in college changed me, not only in the ways that they boldly portrayed histories previously unknown to me, but also by inspiring me to explore. By their example, they drew me toward my own research armed with new questions about race, gender, and sexuality.
Cuts to the humanities and social sciences threaten the broader Liberal Arts project that is so vital to our society. Cuts to Black Studies and Women's and Gender Studies Programs are short-sighted and will ensure only that we study and learn about a present and a past that suits the needs of a fickle market economy. These cuts jeopardize not only our current understanding of ourselves but also our future knowledge of our histories. We can and should do better. Our future and our past depend upon it.
[portions of this essay appeared in Underdogs and Outsiders: Discovering Hidden Histories]