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Washington state wants to make every class ethnic studies. Here’s why that’s wrong.
Following in the footsteps of states like California and Oregon, my home state of Washington seeks to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. After two years of deliberations and public communications, it isn’t yet clear what Washington’s governing bodies have in mind. According to some public communications, schools will be required to retool some courses in their existing curricula so that they can satisfy the ethnic studies requirement and a core subject area requirement at the same time. According to others, the requirement will not be a single course or course sequence, but a critical lens to be embedded in learning standards across all subjects in all grades.
I don’t strenuously object to the single course requirement. I have elsewhere argued for ways schools can make room for ethnic studies courses in high schools without adding to existing credit-hour requirements. Because ethnic and other critical studies are so firmly embedded in American universities, familiarity with their tenets is now part of what it means for high school graduates to be “college ready.” Besides, I know from my work with school systems and charter management organizations over the last two decades that in many secondary schools English and social studies courses are often already ethnic and gender studies courses in all but name.
But I find the comprehensive K-12 lens version misguided. There are several reasons for this, but for brevity’s sake I will focus on the two most basic.
First, according to proponents, ethnic studies nurtures students’ racial and ethnic identities by emphasizing ethnic and racial differences, and power struggles between racial groupings. It views racial and ethnic identities as paramount and regards American society, culture, and institutions as oppressive encroachments on those identities.
This strikes me as a peculiar position for a state education agency to adopt, and an especially perverse one in a diverse democratic society where the political will to promote shared social goods depends on solidarity among disparate groups. It is also a profound departure from one of the founding rationales for universal public education, which is to bridge ethnic and religious differences in the service of forging a shared civic identity—e pluribus unum. To do this, schools should help students recognize the aspirations, ideals, commitments, and identities they have in common, not accentuate their differences or sow mutual distrust.
Second, critics are right to characterize the ethnic studies lens as reductive, tendentious, divisive, and doctrinaire. The indiscriminate use of white supremacy, oppression, racial trauma, colonial trauma, resistance, and healing in the ethnic studies literature ought to make this evident. This isn’t the conceptual vocabulary of the dispassionate historian or social scientist, but the histrionic rhetoric of the zealot.
It is the rhetoric of ethnic studies, not ethnic histories. The two are not synonymous. Ethnic and racial histories—the experiences and contributions of different ethnic and racial groups in the US, the rivalries among them, the especially egregious injustices inflicted on some of them, the struggles to overcome those injustices, and instances of injustice and racism today— are taught in schools throughout the country. The best version of these classes teach ethnic and racial histories through multiple lenses, giving students a rich understanding of how these histories are connected to different ideas today.
Ethnic studies, on the other hand, is the lens. Its origins lie in the radical student movement of the 1960s and was created explicitly to underwrite a liberationist cultural politics. The development of the field over the last 50 years has stayed true to those origins. That is why ethnic studies advocates vigorously insist that ethnic studies is not “liberal multiculturalism,” which they disparage as “white-washing”—white supremacy with a smiley face. They know that the agonistic racial lens isn’t incidental to ethnic studies, it’s the defining feature.
Pointing out the origins and political aims of ethnic studies doesn’t discredit its point of view. But it does remind us that it is a point of view. Despite proponents’ claims, ethnic studies does not promote the teaching of multiple perspectives. It applies a single perspective to teaching about multiple ethnic groups. It is not just social conservatives who object to it. The ethnic studies perspective is contested by reputable scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and rejected by many members of the ethnic and racial groups for whom ethnic studies claims to speak.
Requiring the ethnic studies lens across K-12 learning standards is therefore akin to requiring a feminist or libertarian lens. Those ideologies and others should be taught somewhere in the school curriculum, but they should be taught as rival interpretive frameworks and objects of analysis. None should be enshrined in state learning standards or local curricula as settled doctrine.
Though it contravenes the most basic tenets of a sound education, the prospect that Washington might take this radical step is not as alarming as it might initially seem. Education policies tend to get watered down by the time they get from statehouse to schoolhouse. The enforcement mechanisms are weak, and the professional training given to teachers weaker. Moreover, I have taught a graduate course in critical social justice-rooted educational leadership that included the ethnic studies lens, listened to my own adolescent children (who are mixed-race) lampoon crude ethnic studies scripts, and reviewed enough ethnic studies literature to see how riddled it is with inconsistencies and contradictions. For these reasons, I expect ethnic studies to show up in most classrooms as a neutered and incoherent muddle. Disagreeable maybe, but not disastrous.
I am nonetheless bemused. I simply cannot comprehend how state legislators and education leaders became convinced that it was sensible educational policy in the first place.
True, schools and other public institutions have often failed to live up to the principles that undergird e pluribus unum—principles of liberty, equality, and justice. But it is also true that over the last half century educators have succeeded in making curricula more multicultural, classrooms more inclusive, and schools more welcoming to all students. Meanwhile, they have made great strides toward raising graduation rates, narrowing achievement gaps, and equalizing opportunities for students from increasingly diverse backgrounds. That their job isn’t finished is all the more reason to double-down on our commitment to those founding principles, not abjure them.
Public education should not divide students by race, ethnicity, or other ascribed identity; it should instead help them bridge their differences, recognize their shared humanity, and nurture a common civic identity that will enable them to pursue liberal democratic aspirations together. Legislatures, school boards, and educators should reject ethnic studies’ divisive doctrines and instead encourage schools to reclaim their founding purpose in forging e pluribus unum.
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