A year ago, the California Department of Education released a draft of guidelines for implementing “ethnic studies” in public high schools.
It unleashed a torrent of controversy — for good reason.
The 303-page document was ersatz Marxist agitprop that, if adopted, would have drummed into young minds the notion that in America, anyone not a white male is virtually enslaved.
“At its core,” the draft declared, “the field of ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with an emphasis on experiences of people of color in the United States,” adding, “The field critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, that continue to impact the social, emotional, cultural, economic, and political experiences of Native People(s) and people of color.”
In critiquing “systems of power,” it advised, “These are structures that have the capacity to control circumstances within economic, political, and/or social-cultural contexts. These systems are often controlled by those in power and go on to determine how society is organized and functions,” adding, “some examples of systems of power are: white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.”
Some of most pointed criticism came from Jewish legislators who said in a letter, “we cannot support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss anti-semitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism and would institutionalize the teaching of anti-semitic stereotypes in our public schools.”
The New Draft Still Contains Echoes of the Previous Proposal
Hurriedly, state education officials, including Superintendent Tony Thurmond, promised a makeover. The new version is definitely toned down — less a call for social revolution and more a conventional academic outline.
There’s some irony in that transformation. The new draft was released as the fundamental change advocated in the first version was gaining currency in response to the suffocation death of a Black man, George Floyd, with the knee of a Minneapolis policeman on his neck.
Nevertheless, the new draft still contains echoes of the previous proposal, to wit:
“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. It can also help students connect current resistance movements to those of the past, and to imagine new possibilities for a true democracy.”
There’s another bit of irony in the declaration that ethnic studies “can help students learn to present their ideas in strong, compelling, jargon-free language.”
The Legislature Weighs Whether to Make Ethnic Studies Mandatory
The draft itself is loaded with undecipherable jargon, such as saying ethnic studies help students “conceptualize, imagine, and build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.” Can anyone translate that?
When the Legislature required an ethnic studies curriculum to be created, its expressed rationale was that since Californians are a complex matrix of ethnicities and cultures, students should become more aware of who we are and how we got here.
No argument there. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a warts-and-all approach, including slavery, genocidal treatment of native peoples and immigration patterns. Facts are facts and we shouldn’t shy away from them.
But ideological indoctrination, which the first draft clearly embraced and still colors the second, is not knowledge. The histories of America and California are not only tales of conflict, including a very bloody civil war, but also narratives of overcoming adversity and achievement, and well-balanced ethnic studies should include them as well.
The Legislature is weighing whether to make ethnic studies mandatory. If so, we’d better get it right.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.