A lesson in democracy

Berkeley Got Back

Nicole Kim Mug

From classes on prominent political theory to the potential cloning of DNA, UC Berkeley is known for its comprehensive course material. But in this world of intense academia, students at UC Berkeley also explore how to learn the art of “parkour” — the sport of running, jumping and climbing over an urban environment — or the cultural meanings of henna tattoos and how to apply them or even filmmaking for activists. No, these classes are not conducted by esteemed faculty, but by our very own student body. These student-run classes are quirky, fun and refreshing, filling the gap in course offerings that fail to incorporate diverse student interests.

DeCal. Democratic Education at Cal. Whether our goal as students is to contribute to society as equals in whatever field or to change society as active citizens who believe in political efficacy and legitimize our current government, DeCals represent our desire to preserve the voice of the student body. DeCals create a space for diversity in teaching — a space where student voices can be heard in regard to what they believe is pertinent, important and largely ignored in academia.

In 1968, a student-led strike by the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University (the longest campus strike in U.S. history) demanded equal access to public higher education, pushed for more representation of people of color in faculty and student population and advocated for core values of equity and social justice through a holistic curriculum embracing the history and culture of all ethnic minorities

The question of self-determination has always been the focus, ever since the founding of the DeCal program. The movement was borne out of the Free Speech Movement and strengthened during anti-war protests and the Third World Liberation Front, which argued against neocolonialism and the oppression of minorities. Emphasizing self-determination in education, the anti-war sentiments provided the inspiration for the establishment of the Experimental College and the Department of Ethnic Studies at SFSU, models later adopted by UC Berkeley.

The values of the Experimental College, such as self-determination, democratic constructions of academia and empowerment of minorities, inspired the DeCals that exist at UC Berkeley today. Originally labeled a Center for Participation Education, DeCals were founded by an ASUC-sponsored student group that aimed to integrate students into the process of developing courses. The DeCal program now offers a wide range of topics for students to dabble in. Any student can teach any topic, as long as the course is approved by the Academic Senate and sponsored by faculty.

Though long advocated, at least 49 years since the student strike, the issue of equal access to higher education still affects and shapes UC Berkeley. Third World Liberation Front activists here at UC Berkeley also proposed the creation of a Third World College, and as a result, we have several undergraduate programs today under the expansion and creation of the department of ethnic studies.

Students should have the freedom to make democratic claims — to fight against oppression that manifests in various forms, even in the world of academia. Democracy is the right of each individual to fight for egalitarian treatment, to preserve diverse voices and to allow these voices to be weighed in decision-making. This is how DeCals serve as a cornerstone of democracy for students here at UC Berkeley.

Granted, there are classes on Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Modern Family, to name a few. And yes, there are classes conducted to teach baking to other students. But these classes are not unproductive. Not only is the very act of offering diverse course selection part of this freedom and voice-making, but also, critical and academic approaches to taken-for-granted aspects of our lives shed a new light on what education means.

What UC Berkeley ought to stand for is self-determination of students. Yet often, campus intervention, funding and political backlash encourage the administration to reign in students’ demands for more diversity in topics, especially those regarding polarizing subjects such as Palestine. Fortunately, DeCals prioritize diversity and embody a spirit of egalitarianism. Whether we study baking, mental health issues, television shows or international conflict, the very existence of the DeCal Program serves as a bastion of representation in academia for students.

Dohee Kim writes the Friday column on UC Berkeley’s past and present. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dohee_nicole ‏.