In summary

Ethnic studies can teach our children about their commonalities and their unique identities. Civics can teach them how to work toward compromise. California’s plan, however, is for these lessons to be taught separately. That makes no sense.

By Amanda Susskind

Amanda Susskind is the president of Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Dan Schnur, Special to CalMatters

Dan Schnur teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, Pepperdine University and the University of Southern California.

In a time of increased polarization and divisiveness, it is critically important for California’s young people to learn the essential components of a stable and successful democracy. That’s why our state’s public schools require our children to learn civics.

In a time of increased hatred and intolerance, it is equally vital for young people to learn their own cultural histories and heritage, as well as those of others with whom they live in the most diverse communities we have seen in the history of our planet. That’s why our state’s public schools will soon be required to teach ethnic studies.

If executed well, these curricula can serve both laudable and mutually reinforcing goals. 

Ethnic studies can teach our children about their commonalities and the unique nature of their identities. 

Civics can teach them how to reconcile their differences to work toward productive compromise. 

California’s plan, however, is for these lessons to be taught separately, with no effort to help students understand the interdependency of these two important topics. That makes no sense. 

As California begins the process of developing ethnic studies curricula, we in civic education have some ideas. We believe an ethnic studies program can be of immense value, but only if the curriculum includes civic learning strategies and resources to help students identify, research, discuss and analyze important issues in order to take responsible, informed action.

In high-quality civic learning, we know that students learn to think critically, develop research skills, assess and synthesize information and present coherent arguments based on data. 

We believe that the combination of civic learning and ethnic studies can restore our nation, our communities and our institutions to places of civility, respect and integrity, committed to upholding the ideals of our democratic principles.

As civic education advocates, we start with the premise that all California students need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be informed citizens. They need to understand how to find common ground in our pluralistic society while protecting the rights of our people regardless of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation or other identities.

Because civic learning centers on the continual struggle to make our nation “a more perfect union,” crafting effective ethnic studies programs can provide the perfect context for civics to protect democratic ideals, norms and practices. The establishment of ethnic studies standards underscores our belief that an awareness of being part of an interrelated community equips students to contribute to the public good and helps strengthen democracy.

In fact, the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum describes how the field of ethnic studies contributes to the larger goal of preparing young people to become informed citizens. 

Ethnic studies:

• Should help students become more engaged locally and develop into effective civic participants and stronger social justice advocates, better able to contribute to constructive social change. 

• Can help students learn to discuss difficult or controversial issues, particularly when race and ethnicity are important factors. 

•  Provide a framework through which students can develop civic participation skills, a greater sense of self-empowerment and a deeper commitment to lifelong civic engagement in the cause of greater community and equity. 

• By emphasizing citizenship, ethnic studies provide students with a keen sense of ethics, respect and appreciation for all people, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion and beliefs. 

We support initiatives to ensure that all students, beginning in kindergarten, are provided high-quality learning opportunities that prepare them to be informed, skilled, empathetic, respectful, active and engaged citizens. 

We urge schools to include civic learning as an essential component of the newly mandated ethnic studies program. Our young people should be proud of their heritage and celebrate their differences. But they must also understand that our future success depends on their ability to work together and become engaged participants in our democracy.

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Dan Schnur has written previously about a bill requiring Donald Trump to disclose his tax returns, Proposition 13 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

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