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Thomas Elias: Take controversy out of ethnic studies

Thomas Elias
California Focus

There are few things most of the minority groups who together make up the majority in today’s California want more than simple inclusivity.

And yet … When a state panel made up largely of ethnic minority group teachers and college professors last summer submitted a proposed ethnic studies curriculum cobbled together in just six sessions for use in virtually all the state’s public schools, it was anything but inclusive.

Yes, the plan gave plenty of attention to anti-immigrant rhetoric, violent white nationalism and America’s rising hate crime problem. But the very language of the proposal and its virtual omission of the world’s oldest prejudice raised sufficient hackles to force state education officials into a complete reboot.

That redo had some informal beginnings during the fall, but starting this winter, officials will fan out among hundreds of school districts to see what students, teachers, parents and just plain citizens want included. The findings will supposedly be refined to better reflect this state’s history and its diverse makeup.

The new program cannot be so soft it becomes meaningless, punchless pabulum that students would … ignore.

For example, the rejected draft said not a word about California’s millions of small investors. But the draft did blast capitalism, a major economic foundation for California’s economy, which has expanded far more and far more quickly than the national economy over the last 10 years.

It’s questionable whether an ethnic studies curriculum should delve into economics at all, but blasting capitalism as a source of evil and poverty ignores all those whom capitalism has uplifted, all those who have used investments to finance their educations, homes, cars and achievements.

Then there was the matter of stressing alleged oppression of Palestinians (never even a measurable phenomenon in California), while ignoring contributions of Jews and the anti-Semitism that group constantly faces. Never mind that Jews – less than 3 percent of the state’s populace – hold almost half the Nobel Prizes won by Californians and have won many elections in this state. Never mind that Jews were among the municipal founders of the state’s largest cities, including both San Francisco and Los Angeles. They weren’t in the first draft.

Never mind that the draft was released just days after the state’s single most deadly outburst of anti-Semitism ever, the murderous semi-machine-gun attack on a synagogue in Poway.

There was also the matter of exclusion by vocabulary. How many Californians know the meaning of words like cisheteropatriarchy (a system where males dominate) and hxrstory (pronounced the same as “herstory”), supposedly a more gender-inclusive form of history? Not many, but the ethnic studies draft was replete with such terms, the writers defending their use by saying chemistry courses also include complex terms. Uh-huh.

“The jargon in it, the invented words, the language known only to a few academics makes this a model curriculum that is impenetrable for high school teachers,” Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at the Stanford-based Hoover Institution, told a reporter.

Which means that had it been adopted, a lot of students would not have understood it.

But Jews in the state Legislature understood the exclusion of the murderous ages-long persecution endured by their ancestors. “This really reflected an anti-Jewish bias,” said one lawmaker. “It’s pretty outrageous that it omits anti-Semitism.”

So this document plainly needed revision about as much as any state government proposal in decades. Said Luis Alejo, a Monterey County supervisor who while a legislator authored the bill setting up ethnic studies programs in the state’s schools, “We must get this right for our students.”

For that to happen, the new program cannot be so soft that it becomes meaningless, punchless pabulum that’s easy for students to laugh off or ignore. It also cannot take on the sort of ideological bent the first version did, with a self-consciously feminist, Third-World consciousness dominating.

Rather, this should be a hard-hitting, factual analysis of the contributions and roles played by every major ethnic and gender group in California’s history and the obstacles they have faced. It cannot side with one group over others, or it will be disregarded by many.

It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but if it’s done well, it could make a major contribution to mutual understanding in California for decades to come.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to http://www.californiafocus.net


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