In summary

The latest recommendations to the proposed ethnic studies curriculum, under consideration this week, are a bold step forward for California students.

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By Albert M. Camarillo, Special to CalMatters

Albert M. Camarillo is the Leon Sloss Jr. Memorial Professor of American History and founding director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, He is regarded as one of the founding scholars of the field of Mexican American History and Chicano Studies.

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A century ago, John Dewey, the great American philosopher and education reformer, offered compelling arguments on the role of education and democracy that transformed public school curricula in 20th-century America. 

Among the cornerstones of Dewey’s proposals for a new curriculum was the role civic education could play in creating a more ethical, participatory democracy. When schools help students acquire a “social consciousness” as citizens, he argued, they are better equipped to contribute to the public good and help strengthen democratic institutions.  

Dewey’s transformational ideas about the role of school curricula are more salient today than they were over 100 years ago. California in the 21st century is, arguably, the most heterogeneous society in human history, and the role of our public schools to promote understanding and appreciation of its diverse population must be an essential part of the curriculum offered to every student. 

Ethnic Studies instruction should be a fundamental component of California public education in the 21st century. The California Department of Education’s latest recommendations to the draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum will help build the capacity for every young California citizen to develop, as Dewey hoped, a social consciousness and knowledge that will contribute to the public good and, as a result, strengthen democracy.

The latest recommendations to the proposed model curriculum, which are under consideration by a statewide advisory committee this week, are a bold step forward for California students. A passage in one of the model curriculum’s proposed sections summarizes the impact powerfully: “By affirming the identities and contributions of marginalized groups in our society, Ethnic Studies helps students see themselves and each other as part of the narrative of the United States.” 

The voices, stories, struggles and achievements of those marginalized groups – chronicled in African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies and Native American Studies – have for generations been underrepresented in our classrooms. 

Over the past decade, I have worked with social studies teachers in two charter high schools in the Bay Area that required an Ethnic Studies course for all students. I observed firsthand the positive impact this curriculum had on student engagement, college readiness and greater understanding by students of the history of our diverse society. And as a university professor who taught courses in Ethnic Studies and comparative studies in race and ethnicity for more than four decades at Stanford University, I witnessed how exposure to this curriculum makes for more knowledgeable and better prepared citizens and leaders of California and the nation. 

The state’s proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is founded on a voluminous literature in Ethnic Studies developed over the past 50 years. This model curriculum will equip educators with resources to explore an enormous range of topics and issues related to the history and contemporary status of communities of color in California’s past and present. It will also allow teachers and students to understand the common threads of humanity that bind us together as a people and how the experiences of various ethnic and racial groups are connected and intertwined in the fabric of California’s rich history of diversity.

Consider some of these sample prompts offered in the draft curriculum. Though César Chávez and Dolores Huerta are the best-known names associated with The United Farmworkers movement, did you know that Larry Itliong and Nagi Daifullah mobilized workers from Filipino and Arab American communities that contributed to the overall success to establish a viable labor union for all farmworkers?

Did you know that when the now-famous Mendez v. Westminster case challenged school segregation in California in the late 1940s, amicus curiae briefs in support of Mendez were submitted by the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild?

These two examples of multi-racial group cooperation are among the many that all students in California schools should be exposed to if we take seriously the goal of education as a means to equip young citizens to participate effectively in our diverse society. The latest draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum will help us reach this goal.


Other commentary on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

Draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is what our students need in this moment  

California students will fight for the ethnic studies education we deserve

Inclusion of Jews in ethnic studies curriculum is essential

Meaningful representation of Sikh Americans in ethnic studies would show progress for inclusion

Another version of ‘ethnic studies’

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