Littered with syllabi and treks through the humid Virginia air, the first week of class always brings a renewed optimism to Grounds. However, it has also left me questioning what I want to contribute to or change at the University during my time here. And so I thought back to President Jim Ryan’s note commemorating the fifth anniversary of the “Unite the Right'' rally. He ended a difficult and painful message with a hopeful tone — eager that the memory of the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 will continue “to inspire us to work to make the world a better and more welcoming place.” After reading Ryan’s email along with a recent lead editorial, I was left thinking what specifically that work should be and the role of education in that work. While the Editorial Board briefly explains the need for a required course, I would like to take this opportunity to call for a new required course category for all University students.
The California state legislature passed a law back in 2020 mandating all state universities to require completion of an ethnic studies course to graduate. The bill, which took effect in the 2021-22 academic year, requires all students to enroll in a three-credit course focusing on four historically defined racialized groups — African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans. Lawmakers in California had hoped that the bill would set an example for other states and inspire systemic change, but two years later, only two other colleges have instituted similar rules to all undergraduate students — I think the University should make it three.
Members of the University community have already taken important steps in this direction, encouraging all first year students to take a guided tour of Grounds with their halls centered around the history of racial violence at the University. The History of Enslaved African American Laborers worked tirelessly alongside members of the University Guide Service to curate an hour-long program, starting from enslaved laborers and ending at the events of the “Unite the Right” rally. Groups are capped at 30 to ensure an environment where people feel safe speaking and there are numerous points where the group opens up for conversation. As a participant on one of the first tour groups last fall, I was deeply moved by the contents of the tour and found myself walking my parents through a mock tour of the University the same way when they came to visit the following weekend.
Having a tour for students to learn about the hidden history of the University is undoubtedly great progress, but, ultimately, is just a one-hour window into what is the most complex issue facing the country at large. Which is why at the end of each tour, guides are quick to point out some of the classes offered at the University which expand on the information that was just covered. The University offers a growing number of classes on the issue of race. But for many students, fitting these classes into their schedule is near impossible. Each major has its own set of rigorous requirements and many students have multiple courses they are required to take each semester. This doesn’t even include the general requirements which all undergraduate students — aside from Echols Scholars — must fulfill in order to obtain a degree. And while it is true that the classes offered on race do fulfill general education requirements, limited class size can often lead to students missing out on the ability to take those classes.
Currently, one of the requirements all students must fulfill is “Cultures and Societies of the World.” While this can be fulfilled by taking a class on race, it can also be fulfilled by taking a wide array of classes on everything from Ancient Greek Mythology to the American Revolution. CSW is a broad requirement that can be filled with over 100 different classes and only 26 of those tackle issues facing one of the four groups mentioned in the California bill. CSW is littered with important topics that should be explored in their own right, but not at the expense of missing the opportunity to hold meaningful conversations about race. The 26 classes on race should be used to create a new race and ethnic studies requirement.
Creating a new race and ethnic studies requirement would have an impact both at a local and national level. Researchers at Stanford University found ninth graders who completed an ethnic studies course reaped the benefits of their work for years to come, enjoying higher attendance and graduation rates. Students would learn about allyship and face the issue of race head-on in a setting that allows for meaningful conversation. The tour gave a good example of what that conversation could look like, but these issues deserve more than just one hour. Moreover, the critical thinking skills developed in the course load of such classes carry into every field of study, not just the liberal arts. It is a no-brainer at the University level. But more than that, it shows a commitment to social change. The University is consistently ranked in the top 25 of colleges in the nation, and creating a policy similar to the one in California state schools could have a ripple effect, encouraging other colleges and universities to follow the lead of U.Va. Even if it failed to do that, the University would still be doing important work to educate students.
This is the work. The University is to be commended for remembering the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. But it is time to prove that President Ryan’s statement was more than just talk. It is time to add a new race and ethnic studies requirement for the incoming Class of 2026.
Dan Freed is a ViewPoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.