Most ethnic studies programs in public schools are at best a waste of taxpayer money, and at worst racially and ethnically divisive indoctrination. But the goal shouldn't be just getting rid of these programs, which a controversial new bill passed by the Arizona legislature attempts to do, but ensuring that public schools give all students a firm grounding in American history, culture, and government.
The impetus for the Arizona bill is a program used in the Tucson Unified School District that provides ethnic studies courses for Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and Native Americans. Critics of the program claim that the courses, especially those aimed at Mexican Americans, have become forums for political propaganda. And the school district's own website provides evidence the critics are right.
Among the goals listed for the Mexican American Studies program are the following: "Advocating for and providing curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice. ... Working towards the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student. ... Providing and promoting teacher education that is centered within Critical Pedagogy, Latino Critical Race Pedagogy, and Authentic Caring."
The idea of the public schools promoting "race pedagogy" of any sort should send shivers down the spine -- and is there such a thing as "inauthentic" caring, whose antidote this program pretends to be?
Programs like Tucson's have been around since the 1960s, starting first in colleges and universities and, later, adopted in public school curricula. Afrocentric education was all the rage in the 1990s in public schools from Portland, Ore., to Prince George's County, Maryland. The study guides used in those programs were not just racially incendiary but downright kooky, claiming, for example, that absence of melanin in the skin made whites more likely to become sexual deviants.
Tucson's program, it appears, follows a similar pattern of turning facts on their head. According to a series in the Arizona Republic last year, videos posted online showed Tucson Chicano Studies classrooms decorated with "heroes" such as Fidel Castro, the communist dictator who ruled for nearly 50 years and single-handedly turned Cuba into one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere; Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentine revolutionary who served in Castro's regime, ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent Cubans and personally executing more than 180 men; and Pancho Villa, a common criminal whose escapades were more about enriching himself than freeing Mexico from one of its perennial dictators, Porfirio Diaz. Venerating this rogues' gallery of despots certainly won't help Mexican-American students understand anything about the role of Mexican-Americans in U.S. history, which is how such programs are often sold to an unsuspecting public.
For decades, the teaching of American history has become a spoils system in the name of identity politics, divvying up slots in the historical pantheon to various groups: blacks, Latinos, women, gays. We've elevated minor characters to major roles in American history if they fit the right ethnic or gender profile and dropped leading figures of the American founding, the Civil War, and modern history. In the process, we've forgotten about teaching what it means to be an American -- what is unique and transformative in the American Experiment.
Now, more than ever, we need to reinvigorate the teaching of American history -- the nation's ideals, principles, its political and legal system -- and not just for the sake of the millions of newcomers to our country. Indeed, U.S.-born children of all racial and ethnic groups receive precious little education in American history in our schools, which undermines their ability to understand and defend democratic principles.
The problem is not just getting rid of divisive ethnic studies programs; it's figuring out what replaces them. Legislatures around the country should put in place rigorous standards that ensure that all students will study American history, government, and culture throughout their public school education. We've created an intellectual vacuum in our public schools that gets filled with all sorts of nonsense. It's time we fill it with something worthwhile.