Ethnic Studies Will Soon Be a Requirement in California Schools
A look at California’s ethnic studies requirement.,
On Oct. 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed Assembly Bill 101, which, starting with the class of 2030, will require every public and charter high school student in the state to take an ethnic studies course before graduation. On cue, the troops of today’s battles over what’s taught in schools trundled back to their trenches.
AB 101 seems destined to become a referendum on the value of sweeping progressive educational policies — whether or not they have a deleterious effect on the minds of children, democracy, American competitiveness in the sciences and whatever else its critics can conjure up. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge here that AB 101 will, indeed, change the academic lives of millions of children.
So, let’s take a deep breath and look at this bill. Does AB 101 provide a necessary and humane perspective on the world that students will use in their academic and professional lives? Does it force the curriculum of schools to reflect the great diversity of the state of California? Or does it indoctrinate students into a cult of “wokeness” and stoke racial division among schoolchildren who otherwise would have no problem with one another?
A fraught history and a whole lot of meetings
The push for ethnic studies in schools dates back to the 1960s, but this latest iteration began in 2016, when California passed a law that asked the state’s Instructional Quality Commission to develop a “model curriculum” for ethnic studies. Public school districts in the state that didn’t already offer an ethnic studies course for high schoolers would then be “encouraged” to offer one.
In 2019, the committee tasked with writing the curriculum released its first draft, which, frankly, reads as if it were written specifically to troll its many opponents with dense, indecipherable language. Here’s a sample sentence from the introduction: “Beyond providing a hxrstory and analysis of oppression and power, Ethnic Studies offers a dynamic inquiry-based approach to the study of Native People/s and communities of color that encourages utilizing transnational and comparative frameworks.”
Language aside, pretty much nobody liked this proposal. The strongest objections came from the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, who called it “inaccurate and misleading” and argued that it “reflects an anti-Jewish bias” that “erases the American Jewish Experience.”
Several years, drafts and disagreements later, the State Board of Education finally approved the proposed ethnic studies curriculum in March. This is the same one that AB 101 makes mandatory. The Model Curriculum advisory committee members asked that their names be removed from the acknowledgments section of the document and urged the state not to “give in to the pressures and influences of white-supremacist, right-wing conservatives.”
It should be noted that ethnic studies already exists in large parts of California. The California State University already requires it for graduation. In March, the San Francisco Unified School District followed suit. The Los Angeles Unified School District pre-empted Newsom’s law and plans to introduce its own curriculum in the 2023-24 school year.
The new state law gives districts the option of adopting the model curriculum or letting school boards develop their own course, so long as they first present it to the public for debate. An editorial published last month in The Los Angeles Times argued that AB 101 would allow too many school districts to functionally opt out by creating their own curriculums, whatever they may be, and brought up a fair question: “Who is going to determine when the lessons aren’t appropriate and when they are biased?”
Which leads to another: What, exactly, will kids be learning in ethnic studies?
The ABCs of heroism
Ethnic studies, according to the model curriculum put out by the state, has four key themes: identity; history and movement; systems of power; and social movements and equity. (Those all seem kind of like the same thing to me, but that’s a separate issue.) The topics themselves all appear to be valuable. They include “U.S. Housing Inequality,” “The Immigrant Experience of Lao Americans,” “Native American Mascots” and more.
I am deeply skeptical of claims of “indoctrination” that have been made in both the critical race theory freakouts and the debates over the 1619 Project, a multimedia series from The New York Times Magazine that re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. But it should be said that this particular ethnic studies curriculum does, in fact, encourage kids to take a political position. The purpose, as stated by the authors, is not only to “cultivate empathy, community actualization, cultural perpetuity, self-worth, self-determination and the holistic well-being of all participants, especially Native People/s and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC),” but also to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary social movements that struggle for social justice and an equitable and democratic society.”
Last summer, during the nationwide George Floyd protests, I saw this kind of thing in action. A group of students at Berkeley High School, which was the first public school to adopt an African American studies program back in 1969, marched to the affluent Berkeley Hills neighborhood and did a teach-in about how racial covenants had been used to bar Black and Asian people from living there. It was an example of education in action and highlighted the importance of lessons that teach kids why their hometowns look the way they do.
You can decide how you feel about all that, but actions like those exemplify the goals of ethnic studies; that is their best-case scenario. At the same time, some of the new ethnic studies lessons that have a political bent strike me as somewhat blinkered, nostalgic tellings of history.
A great deal of the curriculum is centered on the history of ethnic studies itself and its roots in the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a multiethnic student movement that began at San Francisco State and the University of California-Berkeley in the late ’60s. Its work did create the first ethnic studies departments, and many of its intellectual heirs have had a hand in writing the current curriculum. Perhaps as a result, the presentation of the history has a self-referential and, it seems, self-reverential dynamic that does feel a bit doctrinaire, or at the very least, brand-marketed.
For the past 40 or so years, the legacy of the TWLF has become so freighted with significance that it no longer resembles what it was: a curriculum debate, yes, but also a student movement that was anticapitalist. If you look at the telling of the history of ethnic studies and the TWLF in the first chapter of the new curriculum, you’ll see little mention of these more radical politics. Instead, the authors have turned the movement’s members into icons of diversity and inclusion rather than the revolutionaries that they were.
I worry that some of the other lessons that result from the new law may suffer from the same soft-focus treatment, especially in places that choose to write their own curriculum. Diversity and equity are admirable goals, but we should not edit history to reflect and reinforce those ideals, nor should we shave down the more controversial stances of otherwise sympathetic historical figures to fit them within an ethnic studies ideology. There’s no denying that students should learn a broader history, one that includes aspects of our past that have been traditionally overlooked. They should be politically involved in their communities. But if the point is just to pluck out a few figures from history and parade them around as flat heroes, the entire project will have failed.
What to make of all this
When I was in middle school in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the early ’90s, an English teacher at the high school tried to create a more diverse reading list. Even in such a supposed progressive haven, a small group of students and parents objected to the inclusion of L.G.B.T.Q. themes. This led to the public outing of the teacher, David Bruton, as well as someone spray painting the words “FIRE BRUTON” on the sides of several school buses. It was a disgusting incident that tore the town apart.
This makes me pretty sympathetic to people who would fight for a more diverse curriculum and a history that tells the truth about America. But it’s far from clear whether AB 101 will accomplish such goals. It seems doomed to result in years of contentious meetings and an increased workload for administrators and teachers who will have to shoulder the responsibility for a contested, required curriculum.
Nor do I think that the principles behind an ethnic studies curriculum require the creation of a separate course. What is the effect of taking a book about, say, Japanese internment and placing it in the silo of ethnic studies? There’s also a pedagogical question: Does ethnic studies, with all its political goals, rob students of the opportunity to think through the materials and come to their own conclusions? It seems as if always placing works of literature and events in history under such a tight lens robs students of intimate, sometimes life-changing, personal reckonings with the texts themselves.
I ended up taking Bruton’s class as a high school junior, where we read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Aside from a few notes about the history of the Harlem Renaissance, Bruton let us go through the book on our own. The opening pages, which find the unnamed narrator in his “hole in the ground” surrounded by 1,369 lights, have been seared in my mind and shaped much of my own writing.
I wonder if I had been taught this book in an ethnic studies way, if I, at such an impressionable age, would have simply thought of it as yet another piece of evidence that some people in America suffer while some do not. I imagine that a large majority of ethnic studies teachers will not impose such rigid reads on their students, but I also worry that the context — a required course with an explicit set of political goals — will place too much emphasis on what these books tell students about ethnic studies, and not about themselves.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”