Dear Wellesley Underground and the Online Wellesley Community,
We are two students (one soon to be alum) who would like to advocate for and defend the recent open letter to President Bottomly calling for more Ethnic Studies within the Wellesley curriculum. We understand that Wellesley Underground is meant as a forum for Wellesley alums, but the the current discussion makes claims about our positionality as students that we feel justify our inclusion. Trickledown’s original post posits that current Wellesley students “don’t have the best perspective on what they want,” which succeeds in both infantilizing current Wellesley students and constructing a Wellesley/real world dichotomy. There is no Wellesley/real world dichotomy: Wellesley is not outside the discourse on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As clearly stated in the open letter, the need for the type of programs that examine systems of power and privilege can be found both in the “real world” and in the classrooms. Trickledown’s post presumes that that which is important to learn is exclusively outside of students’ lived experiences, and this presumption only works to silence those who whose voices are frequently marginalized in the classroom to begin with.
We do not intend to argue about the gap in Wellesley’s curriculum as it applies to personal finance classes, nor that there is strong student and alum demand for this type of professional and financial knowledge. Indeed, even non-personal finance, upper-level economic department classes consistently have long waiting lists. Further, we do not intend to say that financial literacy prohibits or prevents Ethnic Studies. What we would like to posit is that these two bodies of knowledge, “finance” and “Ethnic Studies” are discursively related.
The justifications for these two fields of knowledge are intertwined and historically situated. This isn’t simply a matter of “practicality” – from a theoretical framework, the two cannot be separated. The call for Ethnic Studies is a call to critically analyze the structures of power and privilege that enable the economic system in which we live. To advocate that students prioritize “practical” economic skills over a critical questioning of the system in which these operate, is to concede that the economic system is fair, neutral, and acceptable.
Within our economic system, privilege often falls along color lines and other intersecting systems of oppression. Contemporary US capitalism relies upon and sustains these power disparities. Classes that critically engage with historically marginalized narratives have a vested interest in calling these intersecting social, political, and economic systems into question. While we do not want to erase the safety and security that success within a capitalist system can create for otherwise marginalized people, we also want to assert that many of us in the margins are invested in questioning and breaking down capitalist structures that perpetuate oppression.
We find this current discussion reminiscent of a book recently read for our class, Feminism and Capitalism, called Get to Work by Linda R. Hirshman. Hirshman argues for a liberal feminism that means full access to capitalism for women, particularly for graduates of elite institutions such as Wellesley. Her argument accepts the world in which we live and does not question the systems in which we function. Is this Wellesley’s position as well— is Wellesley’s goal simply to create successful capitalists who thrive in an unquestioned and problematic capitalist system?
The point that students need to learn what to do with their 401(k)’s, or how to understand the national debt, is therefore directly related to the argument for Ethnic Studies. Even presuming we will all graduate with a high degree of educational privilege, will we all have 401(k)’s to manage upon graduation? What kind of industries are even invested in by the ubiquitous 401(k)? Do we all aspire to follow a post-Wellesley trajectory of increasing socio-economic status and privilege? Who even has access to these ladders of privileges? Even with our Wellesley degrees, many of us are marginalized in powerful ways and will experience a post-grad life that is less than we hoped.
“Basic” matters of financial literacy are thus intrinsically related to Ethnic Studies. Ethnic Studies help us understand our lives, our locations, our possibilities, and our histories. They give us both theoretical frameworks and practical means of survival and success. They help us define our own standards of achievement and and let us create avenues for that fulfillment. They enable us to entertain the possibilities of real positive change within our own lives, our communities, and our world.
We want to understand the world we live in. We want to understand our histories and our own narratives. We want to question the systems that give us power and/or contribute to our marginalization. We want Wellesley students to graduate and feel empowered to make real positive change in their lives, communities and world – not just break glass ceilings and manage their wealth. We want Wellesley students to be trusted with their own educations, and we want them to be empowered to design their own curriculums.
Em Gamber ‘14 & Rebecca Leung ‘13