CREDIT: Luis Alejo
Press conference in support of the ethnic studies graduation requirement in Sacramento on June 27, 2018.

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A brewing controversy has erupted over what kind of ethnic studies school districts should adopt. Should it be inclusive or “liberated”?

This debate comes as California school districts are readying to spend $50 million the state just released for their ethnic studies curriculum development and teacher preparation.

An inclusive ethnic studies program is what the Legislature envisioned when it directed the State Board of Education to prepare an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.

Such a program:

  • Offers students an opportunity to learn about California’s ethnic groups’ histories, cultures and contributions as well as their struggles, including ethnic groups living in the school’s surrounding community.
  • Instills a sense of injustice regarding, and willingness to confront, past and present racism and discrimination at the hands of individuals and institutions.
  • Addresses the residual effects of past discriminatory actions.
  • Highlights ethnic groups’ positive impact on the broader society.
  • Teaches respect for individuals who, despite discrimination, have led exemplary lives.
  • Avoids a zero-sum mindset in which gains for one group mean losses for another.
  • Rejects that society’s main currency is power and privilege.

Inclusive ethnic studies does not prioritize group membership over the uniqueness of each individual and so:

  • Rejects group identity as the primary lens to understand history, society, culture and politics.
  • Advances the importance of an individual’s characteristics — such as character, personality, interests and talents — to their path to purpose and success.

Inclusive ethnic studies programs that adopt these principles inspire all students to embrace their own and others’ cultures, develop their individual potential, appreciate our common humanity and continue the important work of advancing America’s quest for a more perfect union.

In contrast, there is a new genre of ethnic studies — “liberated” ethnic studies — marketed as “the authentic” version. With ideological roots in the 1960s Black Power movement’s neo-Marxist and liberationist and university-promoted critical theory, “liberated” ethnic studies is part of a political movement centered on race consciousness that seems intent on alienating youth from our institutions. Presenting non-whites as victims and whites, individually and collectively through institutions, as oppressors, liberationists hope to create activists who will radically transform their schools, their communities and our nation.

Liberated ethnic studies proponents sideline racial progress and focus on immutable differences. Some dismiss individual merit, tolerance, the rule of law and compromise through reasoned discussion — values that prevent anarchy and authoritarian rule — as simply ways to maintain privilege.

Most distressingly, liberationists’ emphasis on victimization narrows students’ perspectives and deprives students of the agency they need to reach their fullest potential.

A few years ago this crucial choice — between an inclusive and a liberated ethnic studies — came into dramatic focus when members of the California State Board of Education and the public, supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom, sharply criticized the first California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft. Developed by liberated ethnic studies advocates, their draft was replete with liberationist principles, jargon, lessons and activities.

The Department of Education took to heart 100,000 public comments expressing concern and the State Board approved a more balanced guide.

Undeterred, liberationists now are approaching individual school districts with curriculum framed around the same principles that caused this commotion.  Their materials are easy to spot.  The reading list will often feature Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and Tolteka Cuauhtin’s “Rethinking Ethnic Studies.” Their content will often emphasize “critical consciousness,” “indigeneity,” “hegemony,” “oppression” and “decolonialization.

This spring, these controversial principles surfaced in the push to make ethnic studies a University of California admissions requirement along with “heteropatriarchy” and questioning “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “freedom from bias,” “color-blindness,” “meritocracy,” and “traditional Western educational approaches and practices” in their guidelines and criteria.  Setting off alarm bells, their proposal has been thwarted for now. 

So, local educators, be alert. Scrutinize the ethnic studies options presented to you. Adopt an ethnic studies course and accompanied professional development that is inclusive. Equally important, be transparent. Welcome input on your proposed curriculum and resources and discuss them openly in public forums.

Developing young citizens devoted to a unified, diverse and democratic society with dignity, fair treatment and justice for all Americans is a daunting but crucial educational task.

For our democracy to survive, each new generation must embrace democratic values and respect common humanity. Consequently, school districts should provide fact-based history courses and a robust civics education. Ethnic studies courses should complement these efforts by teaching critical thinking skills that value context and objectivity and reinforcing our country’s long-held democratic practices and ideals.

•••

Bill Honig is a former California state superintendent, and subsequently chair and vice chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission. An expanded version of this commentary can be found here.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Ida oberman 4 months ago4 months ago

    Key and so time critical in now with so many of our children returning to school this Monday!

  2. Laura R 5 months ago5 months ago

    The author writes this opinion as though he has actual authority and experience with both “versions” of Ethnic Studies, but he has no experience with either of them. How can see definitively say one “teaches that non-whites are victims and politically motivated” and the other doesn’t? How does this retired educator have any experience in a topic he has never studied nor taught?! He rings bells as to alert the non-educator public and he’s incredibly … Read More

    The author writes this opinion as though he has actual authority and experience with both “versions” of Ethnic Studies, but he has no experience with either of them. How can see definitively say one “teaches that non-whites are victims and politically motivated” and the other doesn’t? How does this retired educator have any experience in a topic he has never studied nor taught?! He rings bells as to alert the non-educator public and he’s incredibly biased favoring (or disliking) one based on buzz words that he so eloquently pointed out.

    What’s worse is that EdSource actually published this when the author has no credibility in these subjects. Let me read an article by an ethnic studies scholar, not some retired white guy who clearly hasn’t displayed a lens or true understanding of this curriculum.

  3. Cynthia DeBenedetti 5 months ago5 months ago

    I don’t agree with the “Liberated ethnic studies curriculum.” Stick with regular ethnic studies!

  4. Joe 5 months ago5 months ago

    White man (Honig) knows best… about race discrimination & Ethnic Studies… Lol!!

  5. Joan Edelstein 5 months ago5 months ago

    This is an excellent analysis, thank you! Race is a social construct, dependent on society to determine what constitutes race and who fits into inferior or superior categories. Liberated ethnic studies centering on race consciousness reinforces the myth that race has a biological basis, leading to division and exclusion.

  6. John Soden 5 months ago5 months ago

    Excellent writeup. In addition, I wish there were some more specific comments and examples on how our society honors and rewards those who seek to achieve excellence in their chosen field while supporting those who are striving to "be all they can be." Ethnic studies that stress "equity" ignore the broader development of the individual and are likely too fragile and prone to encourage a surfeit of hair-trigger community organizers having modest broader capabilities. Where … Read More

    Excellent writeup. In addition, I wish there were some more specific comments and examples on how our society honors and rewards those who seek to achieve excellence in their chosen field while supporting those who are striving to “be all they can be.” Ethnic studies that stress “equity” ignore the broader development of the individual and are likely too fragile and prone to encourage a surfeit of hair-trigger community organizers having modest broader capabilities. Where do the role models come from in today’s public schools?

  7. Dalia Rivera 5 months ago5 months ago

    I think it’s a good idea to teach the history of where the students are getting their education. I am a campus assistant and I was forced to resign due to trying to answer students’ questions about past community laws and how the schools around the area had come to be and the importance of giving back to your community.

  8. Concerned Father 5 months ago5 months ago

    No “Ethic Studies” should be mandatory or even in the schools. It’s already part of history. Yet no one teaches the truth about what the Native Americans go thru. We have it worse always have. But no one says Native Lives Matter.

  9. Lawson Hardrick-Cervantes 5 months ago5 months ago

    I'm appalled that you would suggest the use of terms such as "color-blindness," "decolonization," and "critical consciousness" as divisive and on the other hand suggest that the inclusive model of ethnic studies focuses on critical thinking and objectivity. Are you trying to educate acquiescent zombies or living, breathing human beings who can formulate their own opinions and articulate their own lived experiences in a way that acknowledges true history that people of color have faced … Read More

    I’m appalled that you would suggest the use of terms such as “color-blindness,” “decolonization,” and “critical consciousness” as divisive and on the other hand suggest that the inclusive model of ethnic studies focuses on critical thinking and objectivity. Are you trying to educate acquiescent zombies or living, breathing human beings who can formulate their own opinions and articulate their own lived experiences in a way that acknowledges true history that people of color have faced in America.

  10. Brenda Lebsack - Teacher 5 months ago5 months ago

    Great advice Mr. Honig. Transparency is key and thank you for the warnings. However, concerning even the "inclusive" Ethnic Studies, there is a lack of transparency regarding defining terms. The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum includes a paragraph that states genders and sexualities are ever expansive and ever evolving. As an elementary teacher in a Title 1 District, I am now seeing books teaching K-3rd graders that their gender can change … Read More

    Great advice Mr. Honig. Transparency is key and thank you for the warnings. However, concerning even the “inclusive” Ethnic Studies, there is a lack of transparency regarding defining terms. The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum includes a paragraph that states genders and sexualities are ever expansive and ever evolving. As an elementary teacher in a Title 1 District, I am now seeing books teaching K-3rd graders that their gender can change like the weather based on their feelings and that there are infinite pronoun choices.

    The Ethnic Studies Model “inclusive” Curriculum equates these unlimited gender choices to immutable skin color. The implications of this are significant because if someone does not adhere to these extremist gender ideologies, they are deemed racist. School districts are not being transparent about the definition of non-binary (unlimited gender choices) that is now on student info forms and is part of our Ethnic Studies curriculum. Chapter 3, p 6 of even the “more balanced” state adopted Model Curriculum emphatically implies that non-conforming genders are oppressed minorities and those who identify with their biological gender (cisgenders) are privileged oppressors. So yes, we must be alert, scrutinize, be transparent, and discuss some of these radical new concepts of humanity openly, while being inclusive to our non-English immigrant communities.

  11. Leslie Smith 5 months ago5 months ago

    If the purpose of ethic studies is to recognize, appreciate, and understand the broad spectrum of ideas, experiences, and practices, just talking to only the people like you defeats the whole purpose. We need to not only learn about and understand each other, we need to celebrate that we are all here together, now! Thanks, Mr. Honig! Well said!

  12. Frank F Noey 5 months ago5 months ago

    Mr. Honig, great concept. Finally someone who does not want to blame the white race for problems haunting minorities. Thank you.

  13. Micheal 5 months ago5 months ago

    This is advice that should be heeded fully by every school, especially rural schools where student exposure to different ideas is lacking.