discipline in the United States
which arose out of the student activist
movements of the 1960s
. Before the 1960s, many if not most colleges around the world were fairly staid
places, with dress code
s, and other strict
rules about student behavior.
The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were two of the major catalysts which changed this in the United States, with similar movements in other countries - such as France, which was immersed in an even more turbulently radical atmosphere at the time. The punishments imposed on students who were speaking out against the injustices around them gave rise to the free speech movement; meanwhile, the third wave of (U.S.) feminism was boiling upwards and queer rights were taking their first huge step.
All of these branches of radical activism crossed and criss-crossed over, building coalitions across boundaries of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Ethnic studies programs arose as students of color turned their energies towards representation in the curriculums around them, pulling newfound coalitions behind them and staging sit-ins and teach-ins to raise awareness about the blinding whiteness of the faculty, subject matter, and reading material offered. The breadth and focus of each ethnic studies program depended on the school involved; some colleges and universities offered "Ethnic Studies" as a department unto itself in which everything was mingled, while others created Asian Studies, Native American Studies, and similar programs.
Both systems have come under some degree of criticism. "Ethnic Studies" departments often suffer from a lack of funding and administrative attention, and risk treating all cultures being studied as if they were the same, in a sort of "people of color vs. white culture" binary. Separating each culture out into a new department studying its history and literature and political science and so on runs the risk of leaving out important cultures; a school that started by forming Asian Studies and Black Studies departments because of their absence in the rest of the curriculum may end up leaving Native American, Latin American, and other cultures out entirely. One criticism often applied to either system is that they divorce such studies from the "main" curriculum and make it seem as if the study of Vietnamese-American authors (for example) can rightfully be excluded from the education of anyone not specifically interested in them. However, the point remains that there is nothing stopping a college from teaching such subjects a little in regular courses and a lot in their appropriate departments. More importantly, we should remember that these authors and subjects were not originally included in any English, History, or other general education courses, and it is only because of the legacy of these Ethnic Studies courses that we can consider them a necessary part of everyone's education.