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Walters: High School Ethnic Studies — the Third Version
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 3 years ago on
December 13, 2020

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Will the third time be the charm for California’s tortured effort to write a model ethnic studies curriculum for high school students?

Last month, state schools Supt. Tony Thurmond released the third draft of the curriculum, more than a year after the first version generated a storm of well-deserved criticism for its quasi-Marxist tone, four months after Gov. Gavin Newsom labeled No. 2 as “insufficiently balanced and inclusive,” and two months after Newsom vetoed a bill to make high school ethnic studies mandatory because the curriculum hadn’t been finalized.

Dan Walters

Opinion

The first draft basically suggested that high school students be indoctrinated into believing that anyone in America not a white male is oppressed.

“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.”

Thurmond Quickly Promised Major Revisions

Jewish legislators denounced it, saying it would “institutionalize the teaching of anti-semitic stereotypes in our public schools.”

Thurmond quickly promised major revisions, and the second draft emerged last summer. It was toned down somewhat, albeit with snippets of the first version’s us-vs-them rhetoric, and the list of ethnic groups to be paid homage was expanded.

However, it was still filled with often incomprehesible educational jargon, such as declaring that 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?

Facing criticism from Newsom and others, Thurmond launched the second rewrite that was released last month.

There are still some ideological tinges, such as declaring that ethnic studies “connect ourselves to past and contemporary social movements that struggle for social justice and an equitable and democratic society; and conceptualize, imagine, and build new possibilities for a post-racist, post-systemic racism society that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.”

Balancing Accounts of How Ethnic Groups Have Been Mistreated

Overall, however, it is much improved, eliminating most of the victimization agitprop and balancing accounts of how ethnic groups have been mistreated with descriptions of those that overcame discrimination and prospered. It also relies more on students’ exploring issues on their own rather than being ideologically indoctrinated.

“Our educators and students have told us there is an overwhelming need for tools and resources that promote an honest accounting of California and our nation’s history, and to see themselves reflected in the lessons taught in our schools,” Thurmond said as he released the third draft. “The recommendations presented today offer a bold and balanced pathway to uplifting the stories and experiences that are rarely told in our classrooms.”

There’s nothing wrong per se with ethnic studies that honestly confront students with the difficulties and benefits of living in a multi-cultural society, especially one as complex as California.

The third draft, while still open to valid criticism of some details, is a workable framework for bringing those issues into high school classrooms.

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.

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