Ethnic Studies: required yet flawed

Staff Editorial: The opinion of the El Vaquero staff members

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The Los Angeles Times published an article titled “Governor Newsom vetoes high school ethnic studies bill” on Sept. 30, 2020. Almost a year later, the headline now reads “California becomes first state to require ethnic studies for high school graduation.” So what changed? 

The bill, AB 101, modifies the current California State High School Curriculum by establishing the additional requirement of an ethnic studies course for graduation, going into effect in 2026. Ethnic studies can increase the cohesiveness of the classroom and help students be more empathetic to each other’s upbringings and experiences. Evidently, an ethnic studies course has indispensable benefits—regardless if it is a graduation requirement—supported by an American Educational Research Journal study reporting that ethnic studies increases engagement, grade-point averages and the likelihood of students graduating on time. While requiring ethnic studies has obvious benefits, implementing this new policy will face many difficulties due to the vast history of each respective ethnic group and the necessity for more widespread efforts in bringing diversity into the classroom.  

The centuries of history and oppression minority groups have endured will be difficult to condense into a single course while American history is given multiple courses that quickly gloss over the experience of minority groups. According to the Los Angeles Times, the first proposal was rejected for being too narrow in its scope, focusing only on the largest ethnic minorities, and was replaced by the more-inclusive curriculum that was accepted by AB 101. This creates a new set of problems, however: with so many ethnic groups and backgrounds deserving attention, how can one hope to give adequate exposure to each in the context of a single semester-long course? Ethnic studies provides an alternative perspective to American history, yet the course is insufficient in length, unable to properly address the struggles respective minority groups endure. Minority students learn more about Shays’ Rebellion than they do their ancestors being forced into internment camps and being prohibited from immigrating to the United States.

Given the already-swollen requirements for high school graduation, creating additional mandates poses new challenges that may detract from the original purpose of the bill. The BBC reveals a survey where 99 percent of students admit to cramming with 72 percent of those participants believing cramming has more benefits than spacing out learning. The sad reality is that studying for tests, and learning in general, no longer means retaining information, but rather entails memorizing and then forgetting facts in order to pass an exam, counteracting the intended purpose of an ethnic studies curriculum. Instead of diversifying their perspectives, students will view this course as yet another check box they need to complete in order to graduate from high school. In addition, Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) has increased their math and science graduation requirement for all of IUSD (starting with the class of 2027), leaving less availability for students to explore their interests and pursue other electives beyond their core required classes. Considering the prevalence of these unproductive study habits combined with other requirements to take up students’ time, it is unlikely the ethnic studies course will receive the attention it deserves.

In order to utilize the full potential of ethnic studies as a subject, the topic of race must be implemented across a wide medium to reach beyond the limitations of a single course. It is important for other classes to incorporate minority voices into discussions in order to further expand student perspectives. Vanderbilt University reports that many education departments are reevaluating their curriculum in order to increase the representation of previously underrepresented perspectives and marginalized knowledge into more conventional subjects. A single course dedicated to ethnic studies cannot make up for the glaring absence of minority-group voices within other subjects like history and literature. Putting this effort into diversifying existing history courses instead may be more beneficial in the long run by preventing backsliding into gutting non-European sections of history. Case in point, in 2018, College Board faced backlash after unveiling a plan to eliminate thousands of years of pre-colonial non-European history. Though this decision was eventually reversed, it is evident that there is still much work to be done in order to properly diversify history courses, among others; work that requires a more widespread approach to ethnic studies. 

Requiring ethnic studies will open the door for other difficult conversations to be had including questions on gender studies, xenophobia and many other important issues. Everyone, regardless of their race, can have an unconscious racial bias, and having productive discussions about race and ethnicity can encourage students and teachers alike to examine their own bias and the ways they may be privileged or unaware. The classroom can create an ideal environment to foster such discussions, and to confront difficult subjects that are often ignored, giving students the opportunity to expand their outlook. It will take much more than a single course to achieve this ambitious but honorable goal.