Opinion: Ethnic studies in California should make students “citizens of the world”

A school bus at Mira Mesa High School. Photo by Chris Stone

The easiest way to teach ethnic groups is to list different foods, their recipes, herbs and spices, or play different music with different instruments, or maybe display different ancestral clothes.

California Ethnic Studies Curriculum Model is considering a more challenging approach. The overarching goal is to prepare “students to be global citizens who appreciate the contributions of multiple cultures”. California also makes this study a requirement for graduation.

Becoming a global citizen requires understanding how other cultures throughout history have viewed the connection between the individual and the group. These include lineage, clan, tribe, religion, class, caste and race. These are the multiple ways of cooperating and being in conflict with others.

It seems odd that the focus in a California ethnicity teaching model has often been limited to race. Such ethnocentrism prevents becoming a true citizen of the world.

I suggest that we take a closer look at the two competing educational models, or paradigms, for teaching ethnic studies. At the state level, California has experienced both critical or liberated ethnic studies and constructive ethnic studies.

Locally, for example in Poway where I live, details of the program can be found in its recent lesson plan. Emphasis is placed on the language of power and oppression: “students will analyse: institutional, interpersonal and internalized oppression”. This educational lens, or paradigm, is often called critical consciousness.

However, if one thinks of the multiple ethnic groups that migrate to the United States, almost a million a year, we might wonder why they bother to come here, especially if we have so much oppression, requiring racial awareness to understand social disparities. What we do know are these immigrants see the United States primarily as a place of economic opportunity, freedom, and family, and not as a place characterized by “institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression.”

California ethnic studies students should not compete to see who has the worst characteristics of a national ideology. We need context, balance and critical thinking. And that’s what the educational model of Poway and many other California school districts lacks.

One way forward is to challenge California students with competing educational models, or paradigms, in the study of ethnic groups. After all, California law talks about ethnicities, not shopping.

This approach will provide students with greater understanding and greater flexibility in their intellectual skills. It focuses on education rather than indoctrination.

Paradigm A: Critical thinking – systematic, methodical, empirical and robust comparison of explanations)

Paradigm B: Critical Consciousness – easily understood as critical thinking with blinders imposed on data, the favored explanation being oppression. This paradigm is an ideological superimposition on critical thinking. She often adds racial consciousness to the explanation of social disparities.

To see how these two paradigms offer a different way of understanding American society, consider these opposing viewpoints focused on the education gap:

Paradigm A: the National Society for the Advancement of Black Americans argues that “[Where there are rigorous reading programs] Blacks and other minorities perform better than their white counterparts in regular downtown public schools.

Paradigm B: On the other hand, Bettina Love, in her book We want to do more than survive, “The achievement gap is not about white students outperforming black students; it’s about a story of injustice and oppression. (p. 92)

Without prejudging these explanations, the students would confront two explanatory perspectives. Students would follow facts, examine various social contexts, and examine past and recent history. Let the students draw their own conclusions.

Here is another oft-repeated but misunderstood concept: racism.

Paradigm B: The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.

Paradigm A: Racism, like tribalism, bigotry, nationalism and the like are different societal forms of us versus them. We know that these different social forms incorporate the same antagonisms stemming from the experience of Jews being stigmatized on tribal, caste, class, national, religious and racial frameworks. Likewise, “white” is preemptively narrow, given the perceived racial difference seen in other cultures, such as that found in Japan. We are all subject to odious discrimination regardless of social form.

Again, the students would benefit intellectually from being able to discuss these two points of view on racism. Students would be asked: Is racism a matter of defining social reality (paradigm B) or of considering empirical differences and similarities (paradigm A)?

I ask all school boards to engage students, teachers, parents and the community with a presentation that incorporates these two educational models.

We should be able to put on the ideological blinders of critical consciousness and be able to remove them. With critical consciousness, we narrow the range of explanations, forcing students to channel their understanding into an oppression-based and often race-aware model. Critical thinking can include these concepts, but also test reality with a broader scope of explanations and empirical data.

With a comparative model, we look at a pedagogical approach. Teaching only critical awareness tends towards indoctrination.

We should again ask school boards, parents, students, teachers, and the wider community, “What is the optimal path for California students to become global citizens?”

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the California Institute for Area Studies at San Diego State University.

Show comments

About the author