Ethnic Studies is History: New Curriculum Guidelines

September 9, 2019

We applaud California’s recent attempts to broaden the curriculum in high school to include greater diversity. We all love Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, but the American story is so much richer when we include the voices of Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, immigrants of all kinds, gender non-binary folks, the differently abled, and, of course, the most glaring omission in most current history books, women. White men are wonderful, so is everybody else.

All of these people have made amazing contributions to our society. We are all better as a people for the parts they played and continued to play. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s find those great stories and tell them. The more is not only merrier, it’s more truthful. Can we really understand how Texas and California joined the Union without knowing about the long tradition of the Mexicans who lived in those territories and the various indigenous people who lived there before them? Can we understand anything about how vital the railroads were to this country’s development and not talk about the essentially enslaved labor of the Chinese and the Irish? To say that our entire capitalist system, now the primary economy of the world, was built on the back of slave labor is not an exaggeration. Yet, this country is great despite all the problems exactly because we are constantly trying to do better.

The California guidelines were not perfect as of this writing. They left out important points of view from Jewish and Asian people, but it’s a step in the right direction. How they managed to forget the contributions of people from the largest and most diverse continent is puzzling. In the case of Jewish-Americans, the guidelines confused politics with history and were tone-deaf on both. They are now in the process of correcting these mistakes. California’s State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond had it right when she criticized the report saying, “A model curriculum should be accurate, free from bias, and appropriate for all learners.”

Additional criticism of the report was levied at its obscure language. Words like “cisheteropatriarchy,” “hxrstory,” and “xdisciplinary” only confuse students—and us, frankly—and get away from real stories about real people, which is the heart of history.

As one teacher told the Los Angeles Times, “I want to be able to allow my students to make up their own minds on issues. We provide information and let students draw conclusions. I don’t want to tell students how to think. I want them to think for themselves.”

Ultimately, whether it’s called “ethnic studies” or just plain “history,” it’s all about encouraging students to tell their own stories and to add their voice to the chorus of the human story.

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