In the founding era of Asian American studies, the College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language provided four explanations of the term “education”: (1) “the process of training and developing the knowledge, skill, mind, character, etc.”; (2) “knowledge, ability, etc. thus developed”; (3) “formal schooling” or “a kind of stage of this,” for example, higher education; and (4) “systemic study of the problems, methods, and theories of teaching and learning” (Guralnik and Friend 1968, 461). The first three features were given serious attention in the formation of Asian American studies, but only a few instructors took the fourth feature into account and experimented with teaching and learning methods. Does any of this matter in the ongoing development of Asian American studies?
What is the how, when, where, and why of “education” as a keyword in Asian American studies? Education is a foundational theme in the field. Constant reference is made to the origins of Asian American studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a protest movement in higher education that was part of a larger social movement to change the power structure and racialized culture of U.S. society, its institutions, and international relations. When a panethnic group of Asian American college students, community activists, and other supporters demanded ethnic studies programs, they sought also to increase access and equitable treatment for students of color and for those from low-income families, to transform elitist, Western-focused, and biased curriculum (conventional knowledge), and to recover, reclaim, and advance a knowledge base that was more inclusive of the local and the global and incorporated multiple racial, ethnic, class, and other social experiences from their own viewpoints (Okihiro et al. 1988). Being able to attend college and complete a degree is not the same as being educated. Fundamentally, what kind of training, knowledge, ability development, or schooling were college students receiving when Asian American histories, cultures, and communities were omitted, disparaged, or distorted in the curriculum and Asian American students’ scholarly interests were unsupported and even disdained?
The initiating demands for Asian American studies sought reforms in the hierarchical organization and practice of higher education. Advocates challenged traditional criteria for faculty hiring, retention, and advancement and called for more faculty of color. Many of them valued grassroots activities as well as practitioners and community activists as teachers. They promoted a mission of serving Asian American communities by linking theory and practice to address their needs and concerns, for example, using research to improve the lives of disadvantaged Asian Americans (Okihiro et al. 1988). Hence Asian American studies supporters proposed the recognition of community work in academe. This notion of broadening the definition of service as one of the criteria for tenure and promotion contributed to the greatest pushback from those who wanted to preserve the traditional rewards system of publications and grants. In addition, advocates sought a more democratic educational experience involving elements such as student-centered classrooms and critical pedagogy and having students serve on standing committees and search committees as part of the higher education decision-making process. In short, it came to be seen that an education that excluded Asian American studies was a disservice to the education of all students, not just Asian American students, and one that included Asian American studies was more democratic, participatory, and transformative of the status quo.
In the decades that followed, the founding focus of Asian American studies as a social justice and community-based agent in higher education continued to be widely acknowledged, but is seen today as severely weakened (Furumoto 2003). A few have called for reenvisioning U.S. campuses as community sites whereby Asian American studies can redefine its role as an educational tool for faculty who seek to combine academic and community interests (K. Chan 2000). Still others have deemed Asian American studies a largely ineffective project, notably in changing public understanding about race and of Asian American populations (Journal of Asian American Studies 2012). Nonetheless, new groups of students have emerged from time to time to stage protests and even hunger strikes demanding Asian American studies on campuses that lack such programs. Crises over faculty tenure cases also remind us of the fragility of faculty gains despite the continuing growth of Asian American studies across the nation and the high quality of the faculty and Ph.D. pool (Chen and Hune 2011). I return to the question of the core value of education within Asian American studies in the twenty-first century at the end of this essay.
Education also appears frequently as a topic in Asian American studies. As a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transnational field, education issues are covered in history, the social sciences, cultural studies, and other disciplines. In the space of this essay, I can provide only a few examples. A common theme has been the struggle of Asian Americans to be educated. In writings on the early history of Asian Americans, for example, scholars have documented how Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the mid-nineteenth through early twentieth centuries were first denied access to public schools and then attended racially segregated ones even after parents had petitioned school boards and the courts for the right of their American-born children to be educated with whites. Two landmark cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court but their decisions were sidestepped locally. After Tape v. Hurley in 1885, the San Francisco School Board created a separate school for Asians rather than allow Chinese American Mamie Tape to attend public school. Decades later, Gong Lum v. Rice in 1927 reaffirmed separate but equal schooling for Martha Lum in Mississippi based on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision by finding that Martha was not being denied an education because she could attend a “colored school.” This unequal treatment reflected the dominant society’s view of Asians as racially inferior and as aliens unsuitable for citizenship. As an alternative, many Chinese sent their children to mission schools organized by church groups in Chinatowns. Likewise, Japanese Americans developed mission and language schools for cultural preservation. Early on Asian American struggles for educational access and equality and to maintain their heritage were clearly proactive, intentional, multipronged, and predate the civil rights era and the founding of Asian American studies.
Contemporary analyses of Asian American education pursue similar themes. These include studies on language discrimination, parental and community involvement in schools, biases in college admissions, and public policy debates, for example, concerning affirmative action and undocumented students. Two studies on student access, in particular, position Asian Americans at the center of educational racial politics in the nation within the context of an outmoded black/white paradigm. In her analysis of the ways in which elite U.S. universities were limiting Asian American enrollment in the 1980s, Dana Takagi (1992) argued that these institutions were shifting admissions criteria from race to class, thus discounting the continuing prevalence of racism as a barrier for students of color. Here institutions used the model minority stereotype against Asian Americans to restrict their admissions rate. In another situation, Rowena Robles (2006) detailed how a lawsuit initiated by a few Chinese Americans, who promoted the model minority stereotype to enhance their acceptance rate against blacks and Latinos, resulted in the dismantling of affirmative action at a premier high school in California. Here Asian Americans were first agents for and then victims of educational policy change as it contributed to an unintended consequence that disadvantaged all students of color, including Asian Americans.
Many Asian American studies specialists in examining Asian immigrant adaptation have given attention to family and generational strains over educational goals. They also emphasize the opportunity of an American education as a motivating factor in immigration. Through the twentieth century and up to the present day, Asian Americans have continued to invest their own resources in education. For example, Japanese Americans organized their own schools in the internment camps during World War II. Asian American ethnic groups offer heritage language and cultural activities for their youth in after-school and weekend programs. Some parents, especially those with means, enroll their children in tutoring classes and cram schools to supplement their formal education and augment academic achievement, and in some cases, simply to keep their adolescents occupied (Zhou and Kim 2006). The research on stereotypes and related cultural identity and identity politics of Asian Americans is typically grounded in studies of Asian American youth and their academic and personal development and well-being. Likewise, transnational scholars often highlight colonial and postcolonial mentality and identity issues as part of the challenges encountered by some Asian Americans that can advance, hinder, or simply complicate their educational experiences as they negotiate their attachment to two or more homelands.
Despite the overarching framework of Asian American studies, education as a field, its theories, methodologies, research findings, and its own multidisciplinary and comparative lens, is largely missing from Asian American studies. Stated another way, education as a field is narrowly incorporated, some would say marginalized and neglected, within Asian American studies. Others have noted the limited presence of Asian American education scholars attending Association for Asian American Studies conferences, at a time of growing numbers of new doctorates and faculty in the education field. If we consider the two major journals of Asian American studies, Amerasia Journal and the Journal of Asian American Studies, research findings on Asian American education are sparse. An exception is aapi nexus, a journal devoted to Asian American and Pacific Islander policy, practice, and community. To date, it has produced four volumes on Asian American and Pacific Islander education (aapi nexus 2009a; aapi nexus 2009b; aapi nexus 2010; aapi nexus 2011).
Likewise, mainstream schools of education have given little attention to how ethnic studies perspectives and findings, and specifically those of Asian American studies, could enhance their research and praxis. This is evident in their general lack of consideration for Asian American and Pacific Islander faculty hires and the absence of Asian American studies materials in program offerings and academic and professional preparation. Moreover, in the public discourse on closing the achievement/opportunity gap for minority students, Asian American and Pacific Islander scholars who have raised their voices on behalf of the needs of their communities and student populations too often find their concerns ignored in the mainstream education field.
Not all disciplines participate or seek to participate in Asian American studies. Every field is preoccupied with its own professional organizations and scholarly arenas. Nonetheless as a multidisciplinary field, Asian American studies can be more inclusive and find more balance and opportunities for intellectual exchanges among scholars who conduct evidence-based, social action, and policy-focused research, and scholars who focus on the humanities, including cultural studies. In addressing the specific theme of education, I return to my earlier question: “Does any of this matter in the ongoing development of Asian American studies?”
It matters because Asian American scholars in education are making significant contributions to research and knowledge on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and to the preparation of academics and practitioners, but their work generally is not made use of or necessarily recognized within the field of Asian American studies. They have played a critical role in demythologizing and problematizing the model minority stereotype, for example, by providing classroom and campus evidence of the multiple ways in which a racialized climate of inequality is harmful to Asian American students (S. Lee 1996; S. Lee 2005; Osajima 1993; Teranishi 2010). Many in education use qualitative research methods, notably ethnography and mixed methods, and comparative studies of groups and different contexts in order to incorporate the wide range of Asian American and Pacific Islander perspectives, voices, and experiences, such as their identity construction and development, understandings that are rendered invisible by the dominant culture’s use of stereotypes and its overreliance on quantitative data (Museus 2009; Museus, Maramba, and Teranishi 2013).
Education specialists have examined intersections of family, language, the cultural competency of teachers, and other factors on Asian American K–12 success (Park, Goodwin, and Lee 2003; Race Ethnicity and Education 2006); analyzed the effects of class disparities on the achievements of specific Asian American groups (Lew 2006; V. Louie 2004); provided case studies of the challenges encountered by Asian American and Pacific Islander communities with lower levels of college attainment, such as Cambodians, Samoans, and Filipinos (see Chhuon and Hudley 2008; Hune and Yeo 2010; Maramba and Bonus 2013, respectively); and applied critical theory and praxis to combat racism in the classroom, promote student resistance to injustices, and enhance the leadership development of Asian American students (Osajima 2007; Poon 2013). Higher education institutions are being viewed as worksites to consider student incivility, gender, agency, and other influences on the status of Asian American and Pacific Islander faculty and administrators and their challenges (Chen and Hune 2011; Hune 2011). Finally, specialists are addressing policy challenges for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that include increasing both the input of their communities and the accountability of federal, state, and local agencies toward them (Kiang 2006; CARE 2010; CARE 2011; CARE 2013). These studies are only a few examples of recent work.
Two new initiatives, in particular, driven in large part by Asian American and Pacific Islander education specialists in conjunction with key Asian American and Pacific Islander legislators, research institutes, and community groups, are changing the landscape of Asian American and Pacific Islander education with implications for Asian American studies. One initiative is outreach and advocacy to state and federal legislators and agencies for the collection and reporting of disaggregated data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to better serve their diversity as individuals and communities and to end their misrepresentation through being treated as a homogenous group. Disaggregated data will allow for more nuanced analyses of Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ experiences in all aspects of their lives, including civil rights, employment, community development, and health as well as education, and improve appropriate allocation of resources and services to specific communities and subgroups (aapi nexus 2011; CARE 2013; Hune and Takeuchi 2008).
The second initiative is the federal government’s creation of a new minority-serving institution program in 2007—the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution (AANAPISI) program. AANAPISI-designated campuses each serve a sizeable proportion of low-income Asian American and Pacific Islander students and they can compete for grants to improve college access and success programs. At present grant-funded AANAPISIs include a large number of community colleges, a sector generally absent from Asian American studies and that for more than a decade has consistently enrolled approximately 47 percent of all Asian American and Pacific Islander college students, many of whom are from low-income households and underserved communities. Both initiatives offer rich opportunities for Asian American studies to enlarge its umbrella and engage outside its current venues and frameworks through collaborative research and affiliations with other sectors of academe and disciplines, including education. Likewise, education specialists have much to gain from the approaches and findings of Asian American studies and other ethnic studies fields in conducting their work.
In closing, what will “education” as a keyword in Asian American studies look like in the next decades of the twenty-first century? Much has changed. The social movement and anti-imperialist context of the origination of Asian American studies has long been replaced by a more conservative, individualistic, and neoliberal political climate that is promoting anti-immigration policies and practices and race blind beliefs. Asian American communities are also different. There is a continuing flow of new groups of immigrants and refugees who are more likely to seek security and stability at first, not social change. In the twenty-first century, Asian Americans now engage in a broader terrain of political interests, economic opportunities, and social lives that contribute to a greater heterogeneity of locations and interactions as well as identities. National origin, gender, sexuality, religion, and generation foci, for example, and being multiracial, multiethnic, and/or transnational are other dynamics. Moreover, the majority of Asian Americans today are foreign born, their education and class differences have widened, and often their political gaze and interests are focused away from the U.S. and its continuing battles over race and global domination.
Most importantly, the arena in which Asian American studies operates has changed. Higher education in the U.S. has shifted from an era of expansion during a time of economic growth and broad support for public institutions to one where public higher education, which has provided opportunities for the poor, new immigrants, and people of color and houses many Asian American studies programs, is being diminished by the wealth of private colleges and universities, the growth of for-profit institutions, and the need to compete with reduced funding. We are in a new global information society of academic capitalism where knowledge is more a commodity for profit than a common good, a college degree is a credential for an entry-level job and not necessarily evidence of an education, and academic fields must demonstrate their worth in the entrepreneurial market place to obtain faculty positions (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004). New technologies and models of education, for example, long-distance learning and MOOCs (mass open online courses), are challenging traditional teaching and learning. And, in the internationalization of higher education, undergraduate students from China and other nations are becoming the new source of diversity on U.S. campuses.
What then are the mission, role, and place of Asian American studies in this new context? There is no dispute about how Asian American studies has changed what we know, but where does Asian American studies fit in the new models of knowledge development and transmission and the competition for shrinking resources on campuses? What is the impact of an evolving U.S. higher education system that is increasingly entrepreneurial and whose institutions now compete in global rankings on a field such as Asian American studies? How is Asian American Studies making a difference in the education of students and preparing them for the twenty-first century, if any? What do students need to know today to be productive and contributing world citizens? Who will benefit from the knowledge production and skill development of faculty and students in Asian American studies? Is Asian American studies to be only a campus-based enterprise? In summary, how can Asian American studies remain relevant and meaningful as an educational endeavor today and for the near future?