The minefield of ethnic studies curricula

August 21, 2019 • 10:30 am

A few years ago I was talking with Dan Dennett about whether public schools should teach “religious studies”. He was firmly of the opinion that the answer was “yes.” And I can see his point: religion is and has been an important part of human society and history, and you can hardly be considered literate unless you know something about it.

On the other hand, I argued, the existence of such a curriculum would inevitably cause problems. All believers would want their faiths to be taught, and who would decide? Would such a curriculum include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology? What about Bahá’í? And what, exactly, would be taught? In Islam, would you simply teach the difference between Sunni and Shia beliefs, or add the other sects, too? In the Scientology section, would they teach about Xenu and the thetans? (Imagine the giggles from the students!) Overall, I see no way to teach religion in any nondivisive way other than just saying “X believes this, Y believes that”, and that’s not very enlightening. But perhaps it’s better than nothing.

Still, those problems are trivial compared to those with deciding what to teach in ethnic studies. Three states now—California, Vermont, and Oregon—have designed or are designing ethnic-studies programs for public schools between kindergarten and grade 12, and, as you might expect, trouble is brewing. This is reported in a new New York Times article:

The troubles, as seen in the California proposals, are twofold. First, which ethnic groups should have their history examined? (We’re talking about ethnic groups in the U.S.) Already some groups are beefing that they’re being left out of the draft materials, which, it must be said, are optional. (But I bet whatever materials are finally assembled are the ones teachers will use. Already overburdened, teachers aren’t going to confect their own ethnic studies curriculum from scratch.)

But after California released the draft of the materials for public comment in June, some Jewish legislators and organizations complained that anti-Semitism was not an area of emphasis, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel came up repeatedly. Armenian, Greek, Hindu and Korean organizations later joined the Jewish groups in calling for revisions.

Shereen Bhalla, director of education for the Hindu American Foundation, said the curriculum should include information on the contributions Indian-Americans have made to the United States, and on the discrimination they have faced through immigration restrictions and hate crimes.

You can see this happening with every group, for who wants to be left out? And who is going to tell a group of Hindus that “your history doesn’t count”?

Further, as the excerpt above implies, this is not going to be Ethnic Studies, but Woke Studies. That can hardly be avoided given that the vast majority of school teachers and administrators are on the Left. And so the students will be inculcated with specific ideologies and ways to think about their identities along with their groups’ histories. Here are some excerpt showing that:

The California course materials focus on people of color, such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Central American immigrants and Pacific Islanders. Much of the material is uncontroversial, including lessons that ask students to examine a 1943 real estate deed restricting occupancy to white tenants, or to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

I think this kind of stuff is good. For too long American history has been sanitized, deliberately leaving out the bad bits. When I took it during the Pleistocene, we hardly learned anything about slavery, and nothing about the exclusion of African-Americans after emancipation, nor about the Irish or the incarceration of Japanese during World War II. American history is not all beer and skittles, and that has to be made known to the students.

But the problem is how to do this without at the same time inculcating them with the narratives of the Woke: that every American institution permeated with structural racism and sexism, that there are hierarchies and intersections of oppression, and all the resultant jargon that we so dislike when it’s pushed by colleges.

And will there be any room for students to question what they’re taught? Not likely, as critical thinking isn’t taught much in American secondary schools, and there is little time for student discussion of history.

This Awokening of the curriculum is what worries me, including the possible distortion of biology through discussions of gender, as well as the possible demonization of Israel and Jews, and even the extolling of BDS:

The materials are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.”

. . . It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents — “hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship” — were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.

. . . The curriculum goes beyond ethnicity to talk about gender, class and many other forms of identity.

According to a glossary included with the documents, “hxrstory,” pronounced “herstory,” is history written from a gender-inclusive perspective. “Cisheteropatriarchy” is a system of power based on the dominance of straight men who are not transgender. “Accompliceship” is the process of building relationships grounded in trust and accountability with marginalized people and groups.

The public school student body of California is much more diverse than the teacher corps that would be tasked with adapting college-level concepts for the K-12 classroom. More than three-quarters of California students are nonwhite, but 62 percent of their teachers are white.

. . . But the area of the draft curriculum that proved most divisive is how it treats Palestinians and Jews. Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco, said that for too long, Arab-American issues had received short shrift in the curriculum.

Ethnic studies highlights activism against oppression, which is one reason the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement should be included, she said.

“You can’t talk about the Palestinian people without talking about the struggle against apartheid,” she said.

Well, there you see the unstoppable invasion of the termites: the use of “apartheid” when referring to Israel (and not, of course, when referring to oppressive and exclusionary Arab countries).  In other words, the danger is that schools can use ethnic studies to push the views of teachers and administrators on the students, producing little indoctrinated robots who, infused with identity politics, haven’t been taught to think critically about the curriculum.

I’m convinced that ethnic studies should be taught. I’m not so convinced that, in today’s climate, it can be taught in a way that won’t divide the students—the adults who will some day run the country.


63 thoughts on “The minefield of ethnic studies curricula

      1. Fortunately I escaped academia before the woke wave hit, I taught anthropology from a very evolutionary perspective. I never really had any trouble except for one young woman who was overwhelmed by too much evolution. What I found about Ethnic Studies was that a Native Americans seldom had a chance before they were “let go” and this included a Berkeley graduate and a man who had been president of the tribal university. This anti-Native American attitude seemed to prevail to the highest levels of the administration. Thus it is that the “ethnics” may not get along with one another, and the “whites” may take sides.

    1. I urge those concerned about this to listen to this recent hour of Michael Krasny’s “Forum” on KQED FM.

      It’s a fascinating and infuriating discussion. Rarely do I become so exercised that I wish I could reach into the radio and throttle someone but every time Natalia Deeb Sossa opened her mouth I sure wanted to.

      The LA Times has several articles on the matter but there’s a paywall, at least for some viewers (I read that the limits on free articles aren’t uniform but don’t know how they determine who gets to read how many articles.

    1. Or, more likely, Hawi’ian (where does the apostrophe go?) political activists like to wrap themselves in the “traditional beliefs” flag as a form of virtue signalling.

  1. The awokening of high-school curricula is no doubt an outcome of attitudes prevalent in our Schools of Ed, where the termites seem to have been particularly active. Starting from their obvious nests in grievance studies departments, the termites have been streaming into Schools of Ed and departments of
    Communication, munching away.

  2. A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.”

    Well if that isn’t begging the question, I don’t know what is.

  3. Every time I see something like hxrstory or herstory I cringe. I want to suggest to those who advocate for such terms that we also change the word hysteria to be hersteria. (I’ll go do some work now.)

  4. Two points:

    There is nothing problematic about religious studies. One can look at the history of a religion as easily as you can study the British Empire. One can look at a religious society from an anthropological or sociological perspective, just as you might look at a secular society. You can even teach the history of doctrinal development (although granted why would you care if you don’t believe the doctrine or were a missionary against it). You can deal with traditional “philosophy of religion” questions like free will/determinism or arguments about God.

    In fact, there isn’t a huge difference between ethnic studies and religious studies as most religions have a strong ethnic or exclusively ethnic component, whether Polish Catholics or Egyptian Copts.

    The problem with ethnic studies is that same problem of religious studies. The Leftist “Justice” perspective assigns roles of oppressor and oppressed, and then the record is massaged to tell a story that meets the trope. For example, you hear a lot about the Trail of Tears, little about the atrocities on white settlers in King Phillips War. One of the oldest “Leftist” story was that the nice German people were kicked around by the big bad British and their evil Jewish collaborators, and we know how that ended up. Obviously, this is similar to teaching religion from a Catholic perspective where everyone else is either an idiot, wicked, or a stepping stone to the true faith.

    That is to say, school districts are seeking to indoctrinate students in various forms of national socialist ideology in an anti-colonialist patina which would have made it palatable to the Soviets in their time and is palatable to Progressives today. It was these same narratives that fueled the Rwandan civil war which addressed the evil Tutsi cockroaches collaborating with the colonialists to keep down the Hutus. I imagine there are plenty of naive, well-intentioned people pushing this stuff, but you are an idiot if you don’t think it will just fuel ethnic and racial polarization and ethnic separatism and violence.

    1. Your description of King Philip’s war (1675-1678) is a gross simplification, to put it mildly. There were atrocities on both sides, as the Native Americans tried to prevent the Massachusetts colonizers from expanding westward into their territory. The colonizers were willing and able to perform horrendous acts that seem inconceivable today. This war was one of the first of many over the next two hundred years where white settlers took over Native American lands and almost wiped them out. The Native Americans were not pacifists, to be sure, but they were fighting to protect their lands and their way of life. This aspect of American history is sometimes forgotten with the current rightful emphasis on the plight of African-Americans in the United States.

      1. I don’t want to minimize what happened to the natives on this continent from the time Europeans arrived. However the Indians were human beings with the same proclivities of the newer arrivals. They practiced warfare and cruelty alongside the Europeans. Some were bent on conquest and domination.

        My great-grandmother’s grandfather suffered in the extreme (James Rutherford Moore 1770-1851). He was living (~1782) in south-eastern Virginia when he and his sister were kidnapped into slavery by Shawnee from Ohio. Ironically, his slavery saved his life as the rest of his family were murdered by the same band two years later. His mother and another sister were not killed outright, but tortured and ultimately burned at the stake on the trip back to Ohio. My ancestor and his sister, after being traded and sold around, eventually found themselves in Canada where they gained their freedom after being bought by a French trapper.

    2. One of the oldest “Leftist” story was that the nice German people were kicked around by the big bad British and their evil Jewish collaborators, and we know how that ended up.

      What exactly are you referring to, and what ‘leftists’ promulgate it?

      1. That was the 1932 Aryan version of race + power = prejudice. Jews had all the power, so German Nationalists couldn’t be racist. Like our current crop of activists, if you didn’t believe them on that point, you just have to ask them. All this “critical race studies” cant is just recycled Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with different groups cast as the pure race and the evil race in the script. . . and it could very easily disintegrate back into the original, as Rep. Omar has demonstrated.

        1. That’s quite a stretch. The nazis weren’t leftist, and I doubt they were much concerned about not being considered racist.

          Critical Theory and its many spawn are the product of the Marxist Frankfurt School, many of whom were Jewish. Critical Theory is, if anything, recycled marxism with assorted demographic groups replacing economic classes in the power struggle Armageddon.

          1. I said critical race studies, not critical theory:


            You can tell me what you make of “The Space Traders”, written by Derrick Bell:


            But I agree with your point about the shift, classical Marxism is focused on the struggle between classes, national socialism is fixated on the struggle between the “races” (actually ethnicity). Obviously, Hitler was the main person in the 30’s and 40’s, but after WW2, most of the anti-colonial movements (backed by the Soviets) reworked national socialism–but the point was to trigger a violent revolutionary overthrown of the government by fomenting ethnic divisions and resentments, thereby expanding the USSR’s region of influence. But the history of most of those countries after liberation is that many descended into civil wars because all the ethnic groups started fighting each other to seize national power, because national socialism doesn’t stop once you get rid of the white colonialists. Next its the Berbers or the Igbo.

            Do school children need indoctrination in national socialist ideology? Is this the desired end goal, becoming more like Nigeria or Algeria?

              1. Which derives from Marx, which derives from Hegel, ad infinitum. It’s a distinct discipline which no doubt has been influenced by the Frankfurt School, probably more Marcuse than anyone else.

                But most of the nasty invective comes from somewhere else–mostly inversions of Otto Weininger’s works. [Of course, Hitler borrowed extensively in coming up with his ideological stew from Weininger and Gumplowicz and Karl Kraus(ignoring all the occult b.s. of course), all of whom were Jews, so the hypothesis that ideas derived from Jewish scholarship cannot help to feed ideologically Anti-Semitic movements is falsified in the case of Hitler.]

                If it wouldn’t be so boring, I would love to write a book on the tropes developed by Weininger and demonstrate how they have all repopulated “ethnic studies” but casting different ethnic groups as heroes and villains.

  5. Oh, for $&@%#%#)#-sake! How are our students faring in the essential academics (math, writing, science) in comparison with the other Western nations? We don’t have time for this.
    They must have gone through the dictionary and gone after every g.d. word with every benign syllable that happened to be ‘-his-‘ or ‘-men-‘ I mean really. accompliceship??

    1. I am with you on this conclusion. No time indeed. The constant push to make our public schools or what is left of them, the parents and educators is almost complete. Just what we don’t need added to our failing educational system.

    2. There was a 1990s cartoon with a pair of ducks that sums this up nicely. The dialog was as follows:

      Duck 1: We’re Women!

      Duck 2: You can’t say that.

      Duck 1: Why not?

      Duck 2: It’s sexist.

      Duck 1: Why?

      Duck 2: It’s got Man in it.

      Duck 1: We’re Wopeople!

  6. I oppose ethnic studies because it implicitly endorses the “stew” as opposed to the “melting pot” conception of what American society should aim for. This course, regardless of how or what is taught, takes the view that that what should define people is the groups they belong to. Although it is unlikely that this course would teach the various white ethnicities, Italian, Irish, Jews, etc., how can an intellectually honest one ignore them? In other words, such a course argues that American society consists of various groups that its members should have primary loyalty to, with the government being nothing more than a referee seeing that the goodies of the economy are fairly distributed. No society can be harmonious under such a philosophy. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs is heading in that direction, with white identity politics being as much an offender as any other group. Put simply, the goal of education should be to inculcate students, of all ethnicities, to think of themselves primarily as Americans, not as members of an ethnic group.

    Of course, ethnic conflicts have been a source of much tension in American history and should be taught, but not in an ethnic studies course. It should be taught in an American history course that discusses ethnic history as part of the larger whole. For example, the American public is woefully ignorant of how race and slavery led to the American Civil War. Slavery should be placed in the context of America’s economic and political development. To the extent that this is not being done, teachers and administrators need to revise the curriculum.

    Ultimately, ethnic history as well as any other area of history is taught as a reflection of the views and biases of the teachers. No matter what administrators want, teachers will attempt to teach what they believe. It was always like this and it will always be as long as students are taught by human beings as opposed to computer learning. Until recently, the role of ethnic groups has largely been ignored. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging far in the opposite direction. The pendulum rests rarely in the middle. There seems no way around this.

    1. “…such a course argues that American society consists of various groups that its members should have primary loyalty to, with the government being nothing more than a referee seeing that the goodies of the economy are fairly distributed. No society can be harmonious under such a philosophy.”

      You’ve nailed the primary problem with teaching such courses in high schools. That philosophy will lead to the balkanization of America, with every ethnic group (including whites) locking themselves into an “us versus them” attitude. The “civic religion” of America was useful because it transcended ethnic/religious differences and found common ground among all Americans. We need to bring back something similar.

  7. I’d think a lot of this is debate over inclusivity in history courses and units.

    For example, when I was in grade 8, “General History” covered human evolution, ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome (to what period I do not remember). Some Asian-Canadian classmates of mine asked for a curriculum to be a bit more inclusive – especially as in grade 8 one cannot really tell any difference between Greece and Rome anyway. (For example, the gods – one topic in the course – are just renamed.) So they proposed (and this is with Vietnamese and other victims of great powers background students agreeing) that China be covered instead of Rome. Since the ministry controlled the curriculum, the proposals got nowhere, but …

    1. “..that China be covered instead of Rome.”
      Why ‘instead’? Both are highly interesting and both have shaped our world. Also fascimating is the history of the contacts of China and ‘Rome’ (the west ib a breoader senese.
      One of the most fascinating aspects of Chinese history is that China was expanding around the world, with huge ships and the like, when it suddenly decided to turn into itself during the Ming. I hasve never seeen a good explanation, but it left the world wide ‘great explorations’ and colonization to Europe.

      1. Jared Diamonds latest book, Upheaval, gets into the “turning in” of China – a good cautionary tale for our “America Alone” President. Unfortunately a tale told to an idiot signifies nothing (apologies to W.S.).

  8. My son took an AP Human Geography class as a freshman in high school. The instructor touched on the different major religions without going into detail on the “other” religions. They had in depth discussions on the ‘shroud of Turin’ and the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ and that they are authentic. In short, I don’t see the value of teaching religions in schools. I’d prefer to see schools teaching different trades (carpentry, plumbing, etc). Churches have bible study classes. Class time should be devoted to the knowledge or skills that you will need in order to succeed in life. A discussion about the Last Supper isn’t going to make you be a better computer programmer.

  9. If I were to teach a religion course, the central text would be Spinoza’sTheological-Political Treatise. This was the first scientific study of the Bible. Its publication is contemporaneous with mankind’s well being accelerating into the steep climb that continues to this day. I hope my students would recognize this was no mere coincidence.

      1. The challenge would be getting past adults who control the curriculum. The kids would take to it easily: The Bible is written by men – several of them over a long period of time. They were not so much intelligent men, but ones with the most vivid imaginations. Spinoza presents the necessary evidence in abundance. He tops it off with a profound advocacy of freedom, tolerance, and democracy that that is astonishing to find in a book written 350 years ago. We can all be thankful that the American founders heeded Spinoza’s first commandment: The purpose of government is freedom (and the corollary: Keep religion out of politics).

  10. I’ve read the sample curriculum for California’s new ethnic studies program, and intend on blogging about it in detail. For now, I’ll only say that it is extremely radical — not just your typical SJW nonsense, but marxist/anarchist & even some fringe woo.

  11. Jerry, I’m curious about what kind of evidence you have to support your assertion that “the vast majority of school teachers and administrators are on the Left.” And voting Democrat or broadly supporting mainstream Democratic Party policies shouldn’t be enough to qualify for the capital L. After all, wouldn’t that make you one of the Woke and undermine the point you’re trying to make?

    1. *chuckle* Agreed!

      “Study one holy book and you’re a convert for life. Study two or more, and you’re done in a weekend.”

  12. Much of the material is uncontroversial, including lessons that ask students to examine a 1943 real estate deed restricting occupancy to white tenants….”

    The deed lesson is, in fact, highly controversial, as it suggests that the existence of ethically homogenous neighborhoods today are primarily the result of those 80-year-old practices — and that such practices covertly continue to this day.

    The lesson also includes reading an excerpt from the 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, implying that the racist sentiments encountered by the protagonists are ubiquitous today. (Why not rather watch some episodes of The Jeffersons?)

    1. Why is that the lesson? One pair of critical question about anything like that would be: how is it still relevant? how is it not? A great opportunities to have students see different perspectives.

      1. The entire curriculum is exceedingly biased, for example, teaching as a fact “the value and strength in diversity”, and one exercise where:
        students will debunk myths about immigrants. Students will research factual data to replace, rewrite and have discourse on the misinformation of the fictional statements and the real impact of immigrants in society.

        You can guess what are the ‘facts’ and what the ‘fiction’.

        Parts of the curriculum, such as the hagiographies of the leaders of the bloody 1971 Attica Prison riot, read like they were written by some old ex- Weather Underground members.

  13. “Further, as the excerpt above implies, this is not going to be Ethnic Studies, but Woke Studies.”

    Once again, politics in disguise.

    “…the adults who will some day run the country.”

    I wouldn’t worry too much about that, the “res publica” will be only a shell after the coming financial fiasco.

    1. The problem is those ‘people who are able to adult’ when in power will have been taught that if you encounter something you dislike the right thing to do is to scream at the top of your lungs that you are offended and that ‘someone’ should take the nasty thing away.

  14. All believers would want their faiths to be taught, and who would decide? Would such a curriculum include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology? What about Bahá’í? And what, exactly, would be taught?

    The strategy my RE (note – not “RI”) teacher took was to invite the class members to come up to the front of the class and do a 5 minute presentation on the beliefs of their religion, and then over succeeding months do a series of more thorough historical and descriptive lessons on those religions. I don’t think there was a religion represented in the class that didn’t get a pitch – and then an analysis. Even the class’s contingent of JWs, who had a “Get Out of RE Class” ticket were allowed by their Elders to attend the class for that one.
    I think circumstances conspired that we had to get a Sikh in from one of the other streams in the year to present for that religion, but that was arranged. I did my schtick for atheist scientism, of course. The abuse I got for that forged bonds of estrangement with the JWs which lasted for the rest of school years.

  15. This curriculum would appear to insert WOKE politics into K-12 education. A very bad idea in a country already terribly divided.

  16. There is a claim to be made that cultural literacy warrants some mention of religions. Everyone should know about David and Goliath, for instance, as it is often used as a metaphor.

    However it seems silly to me to think that what you studied in a 9th grade class will determine what you think about the world around you for the rest of your life. It just doesn’t work that way.

  17. My default setting for any ‘XYZ-studies’ department is to look at it with a jaundiced eye. I consider any ‘….-studies’ as BS, until proven otherwise.

  18. “In the Scientology section, would they teach about Xenu and the thetans? (Imagine the giggles from the students!)”

    This could just as easily be an argument in support of “religious studies” in public schools!

  19. Isn’t everything a truth claim? The truth claims of religion are no different.

    Of course I don’t see this happening right away, but that doesn’t mean students cannot take this angle themselves in any such course – evaluation of truth claims, with consideration of when these truth claims originated – deep in the age when scientific literacy was thousands of years away.

  20. Well, there you see the unstoppable invasion of the termites: … little indoctrinated robots who, infused with identity politics, haven’t been taught to think critically about the curriculum.

    Quite a few gems like this lately. I find “Termite” hilarious for some reason.

  21. The prospect of woke education is indeed worrisome. However, if the students take to woke studies as they take to math, then there might not be much of a problem.

    1. Unfortunately, that is not the way to look at it. Math is hard. You won’t rise in the field without talent. Ability to reason well in the math environment is hard to fake. On the other hand …

  22. ‘Accompliceship’ ?? Wtf??

    Sounds to me like an accusation, the state of being an ‘accomplice’ (which usually means, to a crime). Such as the accompliceship of many in Hollywood to McCarthyism.

    Apparently, it’s supposed to refer to co-opting ‘marginalised groups’, presumably to the woke agenda, so I suppose the pejorative connotation is apt, though presumably unintentional.


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