Why We Need Ethnic Studies
November 3, 2015
Our children are growing up in a global world. If we are truly going to prepare them to succeed in the 21st century, we must give them the tools to understand and value that global world. Learning about the cultures and histories that define all of us is an important component of our ultimate goal to reclaim the promise of public education for all.
However, too many students are not being given the tools to explore and examine the myriad cultures, histories and stories that describe our human experience.
Take the viral video by Roni Dean-Burren, a Texas mom who exposed the whitewashed version of American history portrayed in her child’s world geography textbook. This textbook characterized slaves as “workers.”
“It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” Dean-Burren told the New York Times. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”
This past summer at Netroots Nation, I participated in a panel about attempts across the country to censor curriculum and do away with ethnic studies programs. As my fellow panelist Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is also a teacher, noted: “It is not unpatriotic to be able to criticize the history of our past.” What’s more, when our children grow up learning only a part of our nation’s history—or a revisionist history—they can turn into misinformed citizens.
This is already happening. According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, more Americans say that states’ rights rather than slavery was the main cause of the Civil War, by a 48 percent to 38 percent margin.
Right now, there is an effort underway to prevent students from learning both their own history and the history of their friends, classmates and neighbors. In fact, in Arizona, school districts and charter schools are prohibited from offering courses or classes that “are designated for a certain ethnicity.”
That means that kids in Arizona are not allowed to learn about the history of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans or any other ethnic group in Arizona. That means that the following books are banned from use in Arizona public schools: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, bell hooks’ Feminism Is for Everybody, and more.
Our nation is blessed with a rich diversity that fuels our collective potential. If our public education system tells our children only part of our national story, we will fail to live up to the potential that makes our nation so unique. As Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis, aka @DrGoddess, said on this summer’s Netroots Nation panel: “Once we know each other’s stories, we see each other’s humanity.”
Fortunately, Arizona is the only state so far to legally impose an actual ban on ethnic studies programs. However, other states have pursued more piecemeal efforts. In Oklahoma, for example, a ban on AP history was proposed earlier this year—to be replaced with teachings on the Ten Commandments and speeches by Ronald Reagan. And there was the effort by a school board in Colorado to rewrite AP history standards to make them more patriotic. The courageous students in Jefferson County led the charge to keep that from happening, staging walkouts that shut down four schools.
And just in case you weren’t sure of the political motivations behind these efforts, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution in August 2014 slamming the College Board, which develops AP courses, for putting forward a “consistently negative view of American history.” As Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said about the history curriculum: “I think most people, when they finish that course, they’d be ready to go sign up for ISIS.”
At the American Federation of Teachers, we are committed to fighting efforts to suppress academic freedom and promote ethnic studies on many fronts. We work to promote diversity and social justice in everything we do, from our work promoting #WeNeedDiverseBooks with nonprofit powerhouse First Book (which has distributed 120 million books and counting to students, families and educators), to producing content on culturally responsive instruction on ColorinColorado.org (the most comprehensive online resource for educators and parents of English language learners), to our efforts to expand the resource-sharing site ShareMyLesson.com to include free, teacher-developed lesson plans that mirror our diversity.
The AFT will continue to support the efforts of advocates around the country to push to expand ethnic studies programs. In California, for example, students, educators and community organizers have led an effort to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. California’s state Legislature passed a bill that would have allowed for the development of a model ethnic studies curriculum. Unfortunately, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, depriving a state with one of the largest and most diverse student populations in the country (California students speak more than 90 languages) of an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the country.
Other states have seen similar efforts. In Montana and Washington, there is now a requirement to teach tribal curriculum—however, there is no funding to go with this mandate. We will work alongside state and local unions for the attention and resources a rich and accessible ethnic studies program deserves.
As a mother and a teacher, I believe that all children must be exposed to culturally relevant curriculum that reflects the diversity of their experiences. And I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for children to only learn about the history of their own ethnic groups. All children benefit when they can learn about each other’s histories, leaders, literature, authors, etc. They must be able to see themselves as global citizens with the capacity to work together for a fairer world.