Opinion | California’s Ethnic Studies Follies

The first time California’s Department of Education published a draft of an ethnic studies “model curriculum” for high school students, in 2019, it managed the neat trick of omitting anti-Semitism while committing it.

More than a million Jews live in California. They are also among the state’s leading victims of hate crimes.

Yet in a lengthy draft otherwise rich with references to various forms of bigotry, there was no mention of bigotry toward Jews. There was, however, an endorsement of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement, which essentially calls for the elimination of the Jewish state. There was also an approving mention of a Palestinian singer rapping that Israelis “use the press so they can manufacture” — the old refrain that lying Jews control the media.

The draft outraged many Jews. And they were joined by Armenian, Assyrian, Hellenic, Hindu and Korean civic groups in a statement urging the California Department of Education to “completely redraft the curriculum.” In its original form, they said, the document was “replete with mischaracterizations and omissions of major California ethnoreligious groups.”

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would mandate ethnic studies as a graduation requirement in California’s high schools, pending further review of the model curriculum. While some maintained that a critical ethnic studies curriculum was a mistake, and not just for Jews, others took the view that, when it came to those revisions, it was better to be at the table than on it. Progressive Jews helped redraft a curriculum that included two sample lessons on the Jewish-American experience, along with testimonials about Jewishness from the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dianne Feinstein.

A victory? One can still quarrel with the curriculum’s tendentiously racialized view of the American-Jewish experience. But at least the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist dog whistles have been taken out and the history of anti-Semitism has been put in.

Yet as the Board of Education is set to vote on the new curriculum this month, it is likelier than before to enthrone ethnic studies, an older relative to critical race theory, into the largest public school system in the United States. This is a big deal in America’s ongoing culture wars. And it’s a bad deal for California’s students, at least for those whose school districts decide to make the curriculum their own.

What is “ethnic studies”? Contrary to first impressions, it is not multiculturalism. It is not a way of exploring, much less celebrating, America’s pluralistic society. It is an assault on it. “A multiculturalist framework that views our people through a colonialist lens is what literally led to the need for ethnic studies,” Sharif Zakout of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center told a state Education Department panel last year.

Ethnic studies is less an academic discipline than it is the recruiting arm of a radical ideological movement masquerading as mainstream pedagogy. From the opening pages of the model curriculum, students are expected not just to “challenge racist, bigoted, discriminatory, imperialist/colonial beliefs,” but to “critique empire-building in history” and “connect ourselves to past and contemporary social movements that struggle for social justice.”

That would be fine if it appeared in the pages of, say, The Nation. It would be fine, too, if students were exposed to critical race theory the way they might be exposed to Marxist philosophy or some other ideology — as a subject to be examined, not a lens through which to do the examining. The former is education. The latter is indoctrination. The ethnic studies curriculum conceals the difference.

It also does so in a uniquely lopsided way. “Ethnic studies is for all students,” the curriculum announces. Actually, not so much. Irish-Americans have faced a long history of discrimination in the U.S. and are famously proud of their heritage. But the word “Irish” hardly appears anywhere in the model curriculum, and nowhere in its sample lessons. Russians, Italians, Poles and others rate only the briefest mentions.

Perhaps this is because all of them, like most Jews, have a new identity, known in the jargon of ethnic studies as “conditional whiteness,” which simultaneously erases their past and racializes their present. Leave aside the ignorance this fosters regarding the long history of differences, struggles and achievements by various European ethnic groups in America. It’s also the mirror image of longstanding prejudices regarding “Asians” or “Hispanics” as ethnically undifferentiated masses of mainly identical people.

When the main thing left-wing progressives see about America is its allegedly oppressive systems of ethnicity or color, they aren’t seeing America at all. Nor should they be surprised when right-wing reactionaries adopt a perverse version of their views. To treat “whiteness” — conditional or otherwise — not as an accident of pigmentation but as an ethnicity unto itself is what the David Dukes of the world have always wanted.

It shouldn’t be like this. Public education is supposed to create a sense of common citizenship while cultivating the habits of independent thinking. This is a curriculum that magnifies differences, encourages tribal loyalties and advances ideological groupthink.

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