The minefield of ethnic studies curricula « Why Evolution Is True

A few years ago I was talking with Dan Dennett about whether public schools should teach “religious studies”. He was firmly of the opinion that the answer was “yes.” And I can see his point: religion is and has been an important part of human society and history, and you can hardly be considered literate unless you know something about it.

On the other hand, I argued, the existence of such a curriculum would inevitably cause problems. All believers would want their faiths to be taught, and who would decide? Would such a curriculum include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology? What about Bahá’í? And what, exactly, would be taught? In Islam, would you simply teach the difference between Sunni and Shia beliefs, or add the other sects, too? In the Scientology section, would they teach about Xenu and the thetans? (Imagine the giggles from the students!) Overall, I see no way to teach religion in any nondivisive way other than just saying “X believes this, Y believes that”, and that’s not very enlightening. But perhaps it’s better than nothing.

Still, those problems are trivial compared to those with deciding what to teach in ethnic studies. Three states now—California, Vermont, and Oregon—have designed or are designing ethnic-studies programs for public schools between kindergarten and grade 12, and, as you might expect, trouble is brewing. This is reported in a new New York Times article:

The troubles, as seen in the California proposals, are twofold. First, which ethnic groups should have their history examined? (We’re talking about ethnic groups in the U.S.) Already some groups are beefing that they’re being left out of the draft materials, which, it must be said, are optional. (But I bet whatever materials are finally assembled are the ones teachers will use. Already overburdened, teachers aren’t going to confect their own ethnic studies curriculum from scratch.)

But after California released the draft of the materials for public comment in June, some Jewish legislators and organizations complained that anti-Semitism was not an area of emphasis, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel came up repeatedly. Armenian, Greek, Hindu and Korean organizations later joined the Jewish groups in calling for revisions.

Shereen Bhalla, director of education for the Hindu American Foundation, said the curriculum should include information on the contributions Indian-Americans have made to the United States, and on the discrimination they have faced through immigration restrictions and hate crimes.

You can see this happening with every group, for who wants to be left out? And who is going to tell a group of Hindus that “your history doesn’t count”?

Further, as the excerpt above implies, this is not going to be Ethnic Studies, but Woke Studies. That can hardly be avoided given that the vast majority of school teachers and administrators are on the Left. And so the students will be inculcated with specific ideologies and ways to think about their identities along with their groups’ histories. Here are some excerpt showing that:

The California course materials focus on people of color, such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Central American immigrants and Pacific Islanders. Much of the material is uncontroversial, including lessons that ask students to examine a 1943 real estate deed restricting occupancy to white tenants, or to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

I think this kind of stuff is good. For too long American history has been sanitized, deliberately leaving out the bad bits. When I took it during the Pleistocene, we hardly learned anything about slavery, and nothing about the exclusion of African-Americans after emancipation, nor about the Irish or the incarceration of Japanese during World War II. American history is not all beer and skittles, and that has to be made known to the students.

But the problem is how to do this without at the same time inculcating them with the narratives of the Woke: that every American institution permeated with structural racism and sexism, that there are hierarchies and intersections of oppression, and all the resultant jargon that we so dislike when it’s pushed by colleges.

And will there be any room for students to question what they’re taught? Not likely, as critical thinking isn’t taught much in American secondary schools, and there is little time for student discussion of history.

This Awokening of the curriculum is what worries me, including the possible distortion of biology through discussions of gender, as well as the possible demonization of Israel and Jews, and even the extolling of BDS:

The materials are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.”

. . . It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents — “hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship” — were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.

. . . The curriculum goes beyond ethnicity to talk about gender, class and many other forms of identity.

According to a glossary included with the documents, “hxrstory,” pronounced “herstory,” is history written from a gender-inclusive perspective. “Cisheteropatriarchy” is a system of power based on the dominance of straight men who are not transgender. “Accompliceship” is the process of building relationships grounded in trust and accountability with marginalized people and groups.

The public school student body of California is much more diverse than the teacher corps that would be tasked with adapting college-level concepts for the K-12 classroom. More than three-quarters of California students are nonwhite, but 62 percent of their teachers are white.

. . . But the area of the draft curriculum that proved most divisive is how it treats Palestinians and Jews. Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco, said that for too long, Arab-American issues had received short shrift in the curriculum.

Ethnic studies highlights activism against oppression, which is one reason the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement should be included, she said.

“You can’t talk about the Palestinian people without talking about the struggle against apartheid,” she said.

Well, there you see the unstoppable invasion of the termites: the use of “apartheid” when referring to Israel (and not, of course, when referring to oppressive and exclusionary Arab countries).  In other words, the danger is that schools can use ethnic studies to push the views of teachers and administrators on the students, producing little indoctrinated robots who, infused with identity politics, haven’t been taught to think critically about the curriculum.

I’m convinced that ethnic studies should be taught. I’m not so convinced that, in today’s climate, it can be taught in a way that won’t divide the students—the adults who will some day run the country.


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