Ethnic studies courses offer California high school students a valuable educational opportunity – but the devil is in the details.
By Al Sokolow
Al Sokolow is a retired political science professor at UC Davis, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony Tanke, Special to CalMatters
Tony Tanke is an attorney in Davis, email@example.com.
California students certainly should have the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the diversity of our state. Gaining deep knowledge of the experiences and contributions of our many ethnic and racial groups is a valuable goal, especially for students who may be learning about their own heritage.
However, there are pitfalls to be avoided in how ethnic studies courses are designed and taught. They can be informative and positive. Or they can go off in negative and counterproductive directions – unduly selective in topics presented, divisive and designed to indoctrinate students. Regrettably, these adverse effects have arisen in the ongoing state government effort to develop an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for California’s high schools.
We offer this critique about the content and teaching of ethnic studies courses. While also applicable to college courses, our focus is on California’s high schools. This is a vast educational landscape, with 2 million students in about 2,500 high schools governed by 450 school districts.
In 2016, legislation required the California Department of Education to develop a model curriculum for use in high schools statewide. The first 550-page draft, prepared by an advisory committee in 2019, was widely criticized for bias and selectivity. A later draft eliminated some of the objectionable material.
In early October of 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom found the revised version “not sufficiently balanced and inclusive,” and vetoed legislation which would have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement. The issue is still in play, with a final version of the model curriculum expected in 2021.
Drawing from this history, we identify the following four forms of bias to be avoided in the design and teaching of ethnic studies courses. Contained in the initial draft of the model curriculum, they are still in circulation in efforts to get them adopted by local school boards and their high schools.
A sharp division of the world into good and bad guys. Either you are in the “oppressed” group or you are one of the “oppressors.” Ignored are the complications of the real world where some entities exhibit both positive and negative features. In this scheme, groups and causes in the “oppressed” category are automatically linked together. If you favor one you favor the others – a phenomenon known as “intersectionality” in academic circles. Such forced conformity harms students who hold contrary or uncertain views, or who belong to suspect groups, subjecting them to peer and teacher disapproval.
Predetermined conclusions about the evils of the world. Students are provided with a ready-made ideology, told to oppose such targets as “neocolonialism,” the “academic industrial complex,” and “capitalism.” And in some course versions they are required to act on these views outside the classroom. This is indoctrination, not fact-based education which aims to give students the knowledge and tools to come to their own conclusions.
A negative focus on one country and one ideology – Israel and Zionism. In some versions of ethnic studies curricula, only Israel and Zionism are singled out for negative treatment. Overlooked are the many totalitarian and truly racist nations in the world and their anti-democratic beliefs. As portrayed in the original model curriculum, Israel is always the oppressor and the Palestinians are continually the oppressed, when the 72-year history of the relationship is much more complex and nuanced.
Excessive use of ideological jargon. The frequent use of terms not commonly known distorts key concepts. If you do not understand or accept the ideological baggage of terms like “hxrstory” and “cisheteropatriarchy,” you are disqualified from contributing in the ethnic studies arena.
Our bottom line: Ethnic studies courses offer California high school students a valuable educational opportunity. But the devil is in the details. Whatever model curriculum is eventually adopted by the state, high school districts may pick and choose their own versions. The challenge is to avoid course content and teaching approaches that are divisive, biased, and designed to dictate thought and action.
Also contributing to this commentary: David Siegel is a retired professor of medicine at UC Davis. Deanne Meyer is a professor of animal science at UC Davis. Boaz Arzi is a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis. Barry Klein is a retired professor of physics at UC Davis. Stephen White is a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis.
Other commentary on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum: