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Opinion | Ethnic Studies Will Soon Be a Requirement in California Schools

Which leads to another: What, exactly, will kids be learning in ethnic studies?

The ABCs of heroism

Ethnic studies, according to the model curriculum put out by the state, has four key themes: identity; history and movement; systems of power; and social movements and equity. (Those all seem kind of like the same thing to me, but that’s a separate issue.) The topics themselves all appear to be valuable. They include “U.S. Housing Inequality,” “The Immigrant Experience of Lao Americans,” “Native American Mascots” and more.

I am deeply skeptical of claims of “indoctrination” that have been made in both the critical race theory freakouts and the debates over the 1619 Project, a multimedia series from The New York Times Magazine that re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. But it should be said that this particular ethnic studies curriculum does, in fact, encourage kids to take a political position. The purpose, as stated by the authors, is not only to “cultivate empathy, community actualization, cultural perpetuity, self-worth, self-determination and the holistic well-being of all participants, especially Native People/s and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC),” but also to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary social movements that struggle for social justice and an equitable and democratic society.”

Last summer, during the nationwide George Floyd protests, I saw this kind of thing in action. A group of students at Berkeley High School, which was the first public school to adopt an African American studies program back in 1969, marched to the affluent Berkeley Hills neighborhood and did a teach-in about how racial covenants had been used to bar Black and Asian people from living there. It was an example of education in action and highlighted the importance of lessons that teach kids why their hometowns look the way they do.

You can decide how you feel about all that, but actions like those exemplify the goals of ethnic studies; that is their best-case scenario. At the same time, some of the new ethnic studies lessons that have a political bent strike me as somewhat blinkered, nostalgic tellings of history.

A great deal of the curriculum is centered on the history of ethnic studies itself and its roots in the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a multiethnic student movement that began at San Francisco State and the University of California-Berkeley in the late ’60s. Its work did create the first ethnic studies departments, and many of its intellectual heirs have had a hand in writing the current curriculum. Perhaps as a result, the presentation of the history has a self-referential and, it seems, self-reverential dynamic that does feel a bit doctrinaire, or at the very least, brand-marketed.

For the past 40 or so years, the legacy of the TWLF has become so freighted with significance that it no longer resembles what it was: a curriculum debate, yes, but also a student movement that was anticapitalist. If you look at the telling of the history of ethnic studies and the TWLF in the first chapter of the new curriculum, you’ll see little mention of these more radical politics. Instead, the authors have turned the movement’s members into icons of diversity and inclusion rather than the revolutionaries that they were.

I worry that some of the other lessons that result from the new law may suffer from the same soft-focus treatment, especially in places that choose to write their own curriculum. Diversity and equity are admirable goals, but we should not edit history to reflect and reinforce those ideals, nor should we shave down the more controversial stances of otherwise sympathetic historical figures to fit them within an ethnic studies ideology. There’s no denying that students should learn a broader history, one that includes aspects of our past that have been traditionally overlooked. They should be politically involved in their communities. But if the point is just to pluck out a few figures from history and parade them around as flat heroes, the entire project will have failed.

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