Fall Course Previews: Minorities in America

Today we’ll continue to preview some of our Fall 2012 courses, as Ruben Rivera discusses one of his signature courses.

Course

HIS210U Minorities in America

What are some of the big themes of this course?

If you ask people how long America has been a democracy, many will say since the American Revolution. However, in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and endowed by God with “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,”  he did not mean Native Americans, whom he called savages in the Declaration and were given no voice or place in the formation of the new nation. He did not mean women, who did not get the universal right to vote until 1920. He did not mean black people, as he himself was a slaveholder, and indeed after the Revolution slavery worsened and was only ended with the Civil War, and then followed by a century of Jim Crow discrimination practices. HIS210U Minorities in America looks at the history and contributions of minority groups that have helped make America a truer democracy. We discuss typical themes like slavery, racism, gender, and class, but we also look in fresh and interesting ways at current hot button issues like immigration, affirmative action, the changing face of the American population and culture, and the role Christianity has played throughout.

How many years have you taught it?

15

What do you most enjoy about teaching it?

I have learned that when dealing with controversial issues like racism, or affirmative action, or immigration and Christian mission (in which people had to commit some level of what I call cultural amputation or even cultural suicide to be considered acceptable), I cannot simply give a lecture or assign readings. So I have created activities and dialogic scenarios in which students are responsible to learn about a given issue and why they hold the position they do. From there students are introduced to new material, experiences and questions. This problem-based approach to learning has helped students to see the issues from the viewpoint of others. They may not always feel comfortable in the process, but I am of the belief that students would rather be challenged than bored. Over the years I have had many students thank me for this approach, and they have often recommended the class to their roommates and friends.

What do students seem to enjoy most about it?

Students really enjoy the fact that the class is student centered rather than professor and lecture centered. Students actually do most of the talking, and in the problem-based learning process they are especially surprised and challenged in the discovery of the frequent difference between their perception about a thing and the historical as well as current social reality.

Talk about one or two changes to the course you’re planning for this fall.

One additional aspect of the course this semester will be to look at the burgeoning Latino population in the U.S. Today, 1 in 6 Americans is Latino or Hispanic. By 2050 it will be 1 in 3. Why has this been happening, how has it been received, and what developments are occurring because of these changing demographics? Another new element is the introduction of developing understanding and skills for living and working in cross-cultural settings, which in a globalizing and diversifying world is fast becoming a prerequisite not only for Christian ministry but just about any profession imaginable.

If students take away only one thing from the course, what would you like it to be?

By the end of this class I want students to understand that America is not about one race, political party, or even religion; it is an unfinished, ongoing experiment. The “founding fathers” are given credit for having started it, and many call it democracy. But the story of America is the ongoing struggle to close the gaps between its cherished and much vaunted democratic and religious ideals on the one hand, and reality on the other; that the ceaseless struggle of disenfranchised and marginalized minorities have helped move America closer to those ideals; and that those ideals are fragile and always in danger of falling into the gaps again.

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