Ethnic studies must be treated as a rigorous intellectual endeavor that is rooted in empirical testing, not dogmatic presumptions.
By Wenyuan Wu, Special to CalMatters
Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director at Californians for Equal Rights Foundation.
For the last five years, Californians have engaged in heated public debates regarding the state’s piloting of ethnic studies, first through a state model curriculum and now as a mandatory high school course.
On one side, proponents tout the educational and emotional benefits of teaching ethnic studies as evidence for large-scale applications. On the other side, critics scrutinize the pedagogical influences of critical theory in both the state-approved Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.
Last year, my group, Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, and three San Diego parents sued the California Department of Education and the state of California on their official endorsement of two problematic chants in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.
Our legal challenge was effective because the Department of Education voluntarily entered into a settlement with us last month, in which the defendants agreed to remove the In Lak’Ech and Ashe prayers from the state model. Sadly, our attempt has been mis-characterized as an “erasure of Indigenous knowledge” and a ban on “the teaching of pre-Colombian knowledge.” Such accusations are inflammatory.
Nowadays, the phrases “banning the teaching of history” or “banning knowledge” have been weaponized to trigger emotional disdain toward somewhat heterodox attempts that challenge the education status quo. It is a politically charged overreaction that generalizes dissent as regressions.
Our lawsuit didn’t seek to prohibit teaching of Native cultures or Indigenous history. Sample lessons for Chicano Studies and Native American Studies are retained in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, post-settlement. Nor did we ask the court to do away with the entire In Lak’Ech affirmation which is still featured in Chapter 5 of the updated model curriculum, just without the 20 times of chanting to Tezkatlipok, Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totek and Hunab Ku.
The main claim we raised in the narrowly tailored challenge is whether or not a public entity should expend taxpayer resources to promote religious activities, including affirmations that give repetitive thanks to six Aztec, Mayan and Yoruba deities in the name of classroom energizers.
One needn’t prompt students to call out to Jesus Christ, John the Baptist or Paul the Apostle multiple times in order to teach the history of Christianity. By the same token, is it necessary for educators to use a modern creation of ancient Aztec and Toltec religious affirmations to promote learning of Indigenous societies?
Ethnic studies can and should be taught constructively
While California has become the first state to mandate ethnic studies for high school graduation, the dust has not settled on many consequential details regarding local-level implementation.
The bigger issue, beyond our legal probe, is how each California school district can adopt an ethnic studies curriculum that prepares students to “be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures,” as required by law. Moreover, ethnic studies, like any new scholarly discipline, must be treated as a rigorous intellectual endeavor that is rooted in empirical testing, not dogmatic presumptions on race, racism, power and oppression.
In fact, the vast majority of the public, across racial and political lines, demand balance and accountability. Two of the three co-plaintiffs in our lawsuit are Californians of Hispanic descent, who simply don’t want their proud heritage to be proselytized through any ideological lens.
Last year, my group led a diverse, bipartisan alliance against critical ethnic studies, in which 28 co-signing organizations representing a broad range of supporters demanded a balanced, unabridged, nuanced and constructive way to teach ethnic studies.
Last but not least, there are several curricular alternatives in the marketplace of ideas for individual school districts to consider when adopting their own ethnic studies paradigms. Parents, community members, teachers and education policymakers should work together at the local level to determine the specificities of knowledge acquisition for ethnic studies.