California high school students will soon be required by state law to take courses in ethnic studies. The state’s Department of Education (CDE) oversaw the development of a model curriculum, one that took four drafts and was years in the making before approval. But the improved, though still very flawed, final draft will likely be abandoned for a curriculum that doubles down on the failed principles of the first draft, one that was broadly lambasted, including by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, as being divisive, biased, inaccurate, anti-Semitic, and imbalanced—a draft that needed not one revision, not two, but three revisions before the CDE approved it.
I believe most people would like to think of ethnic studies courses as helping bring kids together by honestly portraying our history and positively focusing on the scientific, artistic, literary, economic, cultural, and social achievements created by different groups of people.
But the failed first draft of CDE’s model curriculum was viewed by many as a political manifesto that generated over 100,000 negative comments from parents and other stakeholders in our education system. The opening paragraph of the first draft said it all:
Ethnic Studies courses operate from the consideration that race and racism have been, and continue to be, profoundly powerful social and cultural forces in American society. These courses focus on the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, Native Americans, and other racialized peoples in the US.
The first draft was founded on the themes of racism, systems of power and oppression, white supremacy, white fragility, white privilege, colonialism, patriarchy, implicit bias, and anti-Semitism—not exactly creating the positive inclusivity that many of us would hope for. This curriculum was long on lumping people into two groups—oppressors and their victims—and remarkably short on acknowledging our individualities or advancing our goal of a color-blind society.
The failed first curriculum was grossly inaccurate, calling America’s market economy an example of “a system of power and oppression.” Somehow, the authors missed the fact that this very same system of “power and oppression” has remarkably reduced poverty and raised living standards in every country that has adopted it, and they somehow missed the fact that as many as 75 million people died from starvation under the socialist dictatorships of Stalin and Mao, which represent the polar opposite economic systems of our market economy. But facts be damned when it comes to advancing a political agenda.
This first draft was rightly dispensed with, but it has risen from the ashes, reborn as a new curriculum known as Liberated Ethnic Studies (LES). The following is drawn from the introductory chapter:
“The evidence of continued systematic and institutional racism is also apparent as we mourn the loss of several community members Breonna Taylor, Amhaud Arbery [sic], Steven Taylor, Erik Salgado, Sean Monterrosa, Andres Guardado, and George Floyd at the hands of the police and white people with impunity. … protesters direct their anger at buildings that represent a political system that continues to dehumanize Black bodies by placing more interest in buildings and corporations than in equity and social justice. … It is time for educators to focus institutional reform efforts on the interests of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) youth disenfranchised by racist policies and suffering from unresponsive educational systems.”
If anything, LES is the failed first draft, now running on steroids. So why is this now being marketed after it was roundly criticized and eliminated by the CDE? Because the University of California system proposes to add a UC admissions requirement that students must take a one-semester ES course. But not just any ES course. Rather it must be one whose content meets the criteria determined by a UC faculty ethnic studies working group, a group whose members largely favor a highly politicized curriculum and several of whom already support LES and/or are part of LES.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin found that five of the six working group members supported the failed first draft commissioned by the CDE. She also found that working group chair Christine Hong, who directs the UC Santa Cruz Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department (CRES), features LES on the CRES home page, and the CRES-affiliated UC Santa Cruz Center for Racial Justice features LES on its political education web page. Another member of the UC faculty working group, Tricia Gallagher-Guersten, is one of the leaders of LES, while working group member Andrew Jolivette, chair of the UC San Diego Ethnic Studies Department, features LES on the website and has also participated in several webinars with LES leaders.
Jews, who were among the most vocal critics of the CDE’s various drafts, have good reason to be concerned about anti-Semitism reemerging, as both Hong and Jolivette favor an academic boycott of Israel, and UCSC’s ethnic studies department accused Israel of “settler colonialism” and “ethnic cleansing.”
When high school students will be taking an ethnic studies course in any case, we should ask why the high school curricula must be one approved by a six-person faculty working group from the University of California system. The short answer is because a very small minority with extreme views now has a bully pulpit from which it can indoctrinate and profit.
This version of ethnic studies is not about teaching us to come together by appreciating and understanding our differences. It is a political manifesto. This small minority wants a monopoly on what passes for ethnic studies, and for good reason. There is big money to be made in doing so while at the same time converting kids to a very negative way of thinking about who we are and how we treat each other, one that minimizes the individualities in all of us.
LES is charging the Castro Valley School District $82,000 in training fees for the use of their curriculum. Other school districts using LES, or planning to, include the school districts of San Francisco, Hayward, Salinas, Santa Cruz, and San Diego.
Ironically, the marketplace of ideas has begun to speak about the impact of this teaching, and it is not supportive of this version of ethnic studies. Students in Salinas, nearly all of whom are Hispanic, simply couldn’t connect with the material.
No surprise there. Salinas is an agricultural community with many lower-income families. A quality education is the way out for their kids. Contemplating a "privilege quiz" in which students rank themselves on a scale of marginalization is way off their radar screen. Ironically, having the time to take or design such a quiz is a sign of the academic privilege of those tenured faculty who teach ethnic studies and who use this requirement to increase the demand for their services.
Roughly half the kids were failing the course and most disliked it, asking why they needed to take it. That is a great question.