Almost everyone dislikes the state’s model curriculum for ethnic studies, even its authors. Which is why California should adopt it now.
Anything that California adults can argue passionately about — the State Board of Education has received tens of thousands of public comments on the curriculum — is something the kids should learn all about.
Through four years of controversy and multiple revisions, the curriculum has been perversely unifying, taking fire from many racial, ethnic and religious groups. The left finds it insufficiently revolutionary; the center, too jargon-laden. The right thinks it’s some kind of conspiracy involving cancel culture. And as the state considers making ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, the curriculum’s own authors have disavowed the curriculum and pledged to advance their own “liberated” ethnic studies alternative.
There is truth in many of these objections. But, after reading its four chapters and three appendices (and newly proposed edits), I can report that the curriculum — like the controversy surrounding it — is messy, sprawling, contradictory and yet compelling and inspiring. Which is to say: It’s quintessentially Californian.
Just like the field of ethnic studies itself.
It’s not just that the curriculum’s self-definition — “Ethnic studies highlights the importance of untold stories, and emphasizes the danger of a single story” — befits an ever-changing state of 40 million people and even more unproduced screenplays. It’s that the field of ethnic studies, like the iPhone, is a California invention.
California students should know this origin story because it is a story about California students. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front — a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of San Francisco State students — launched a five-month strike to demand equality in education. UC Berkeley students soon followed their lead. In 1969, the strikes bore fruit, with Berkeley approving an ethnic studies department and San Francisco State establishing the first college of ethnic studies.
In the half-century since, ethnic studies has grown into a robust academic discipline and California has produced leading scholars, including UC Berkeley’s Ronald Takaki, author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Ethnic studies has infused other fields. UCLA legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, in part through field work at l.A. women’s shelters, developed the now famous l framework of “intersectionality,” exploring how race, class, gender and other identities intersect.
In the last decade, the popularity of Crenshaw’s work and California’s increasingly diverse student bodies have inspired ethnic studies classes in high schools, and the development of the model curriculum. The 2019 version of the curriculum was accused of antisemitism, academic snobbery and excluding too many ethnicities. After many changes, the recent draft is so inclusive — offering so many different options for teachers and local communities — that the original authors say it’s too broad to be ethnic studies.
The curriculum mixes tough-minded examinations of white supremacy, contemporary social movements and the overlooked contributions of oppressed peoples. And it points educators to research showing that students who take ethnic studies have better attendance, think more critically and experience less anxiety.
Reading through the current document, I grew excited about the prospect of my young kids someday taking, for example, a suggested course on migration to California covering “how World War II drew African Americans from the South to California cities like Oakland and Los Angeles.”
“The themes and topics discussed within the field are boundless,” reads the curriculum, “such as a study of Mexican American texts, the implications of war and imperialism on Southeast Asian refugees, African American social movements and modes of resistance, and Native American/Indigenous cultural retentions, to name a few.”
Of course, the curriculum is far from perfect. It reads like a document trying to satisfy everyone, and contradicts itself. Its bibliography favors dull scholarly work over novels and films that might better connect with younger students. My own beef — every Californian must have one — is that the curriculum offers little about how American culture erases, over generations, distinctive ethnic identities that give life deeper meaning. A 21st-century ethnic studies class should ask, how might we revive ethnic cultures so that we’re less lonely and disconnected?
One practical worry is that, given state limits on school funding and instruction time, adding ethnic studies might crowd out schools’ meager foreign language offerings. But ethnic studies is worth the risk.
Some critics want further delays in the curriculum, but Californians will never stop arguing about these subjects. So, let’s approve this imperfect curriculum now, and move these arguments into our classrooms.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.