It’s widely known that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed legislation that bans ethnic studies in public schools throughout the state. The ban highlights the misunderstanding of and hostility toward any educational strategy or method that sheds light on the complexity of American history. The relationship among culture, politics and identity in the United States is rich and problematic. Ethnic studies is an educational response to our nation’s full history and is intended to provide greater understanding of all the peoples that make our nation what it is today.
Contrary to the fears and charges that ethnic studies divides and incites the overthrow of our government, it attempts to critically examine the nexus of events, peoples and consequences of actions by individuals, states and the nation itself. In doing so, ethnic studies offers students the opportunity to explore and discuss a range of topics, issues and questions that every American should consider.
The charge that ethnic studies is “chauvinistic” is false. What appears to be at issue here is the assumption that ethnic studies promotes the position that non-Whites and immigrants are superior to native born Whites — that White culture and history is to be diminished, if not dismissed all together.
This is not and never was the goal or perspective of ethnic studies. Instead, the purpose of this academic discipline is to advance and enhance greater understanding and knowledge of important aspects of our nation’s history and culture that have been ignored and undervalued. Does such study in fact often give individuals, discovering aspects of their history, a sense of empowerment, frustration and even moral outrage? Of course. And it should. We all should experience this range of emotion and engagement: This is what education does when it works. It enlivens individuals through information that leads to knowledge about the world. This is powerful and is often the reason many people in the U.S. who are suspicious of such pedagogy prefer that educators “train” students rather than educate them.
Are there people teaching ethnic studies who are chauvinistic, advocate the overthrow of our government and who are sexist and otherwise troubled? Most likely, since we find people like that in and out of the classroom in just about every academic field across the country. There are some scary people out there.
Interestingly enough, the Arizona Legislature has neither introduced any bills that would ban the anti-government and “chauvinistic” rhetoric of the Tea Party nor their dressing up in “revolutionary” garb? Yet, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who favors the bill, voiced concern that protesters of the ban were dressed in American Revolutionary custom — evidently proof that ethnic studies was engaged in the overthrow of the government.
Every academic discipline and teaching practice should undergo rigorous and honest self-examination. All those involved must consider and reconsider the methods, content and goals of their field. Some disciplines are more politically charged than others but this neither renders them illegitimate nor does it grant a pass to those fields of study and disciplines that state legislators neglect to scrutinize.
Education in the United States must remain vigilant, honest and open and educators need to engage in dialogue with each other and the public about what they do and why and how they do it. Ethnic studies should be held to that same standard. But it should be held to that same standard and not one that demonizes it. Nor should ethnic studies be held to a standard that wrongly holds it to some hyper-patriotic test, one that holds knowledge in abeyance due to a fear and loathing of the truths and knowledge of our American history.
Arizona seems bent on taking the lead in moving our country in a direction that ignores and dismisses many of the values its legislators seem to fear that ethnic studies will undermine or otherwise discredit. I suggest that the members of the Arizona Legislature take an ethnic studies course and rethink their position. It is what thoughtful educators with integrity do on a regular basis. It is also one of the many reasons why teaching is more than providing “information” to students.
Genuine education is the attempt to facilitate learning, even when what we are learning may challenge some previous notions about ourselves and the world around us. Ethnic studies is just one of many academic disciplines that strive to broaden the knowledge and understanding of those who are willing to “explore” the United States, in a different way than those who explored it in 1492.
Dr. Ron Scapp is the founding director of the Graduate Program in Urban and Multicultural Education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, the Bronx where he is professor of humanities and teacher education. He is also a board member of the National Association of Ethnic Studies.