Last week, Judge Lewis Kowal of Arizona upheld a ban on ethnic studies classes in the Tucson Unified School District. Ethnic studies generally refer to courses such as African-American studies, Asian studies, or — in the case of the Tucson Unified School District — Mexican-American studies. Courses such as these, which comprise full programs at many public universities across the United States, often focus on the contributions that such groups have made to the world and their unique social experiences. As many of these groups have experienced different types of systematic oppression, too, these courses also take a “critical” bend and focus on power, oppression, and empowerment in society.
The controversy over ethnic studies in Arizona garnered national attention in the summer of 2010 when Gov. Jan Brewer and then-State superintendent of education Tom Horne ordered that the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson be terminated. The logic of ethnic studies opponents and the recent ruling includes the following points:
1. The courses teach students to be bitter toward and resent Whites (Side note: Does studying the American Revolution teach Whites to be bitter toward the British?).
2. The courses treat students as a collective group rather than as individuals (Side note: Does the U.S. Census make people identify as individuals or as groups?).
3. The courses teach material from a biased perspective (Side note: Is the “American Revolution” taught from identical perspectives in the United States, and, say, the UK?).
4. The courses teach students to overthrow the government (Side note: Does reading Animal Farm teach students to overthrow the government?).
Each of these points is categorically false and (as my side notes suggest) tremendously narrow-sighted. Simply put, we don’t apply this kind of thinking to other parts of school curricula. These points and others have been clearly addressed before, such as here. Consequently, I will not rehash them. Instead, I want to address a key assumption about ethnic studies classes: that they are only for students of color. This is an assumption that undergirds many misled perspectives, including the recent ones in Arizona. (Side note: Are classical philosophy classes only for Greeks?) Without a doubt, classes that focus on the contributions, experiences, and unique perspectives of so-called minority groups are indeed beneficial to students of these same groups. But, ethnic studies are good for White kids, too. Here are three reasons why:
Thinking Critically. I often say that every way of seeing also is a way of not seeing. Ethnic studies courses implicitly operate upon this maxim by illustrating how different groups in the United States and around the world often have very different perspectives on events, people and eras — both big and small. Of course, some perspectives contradict with one another and are irreconcilable. When White students (or all students for that matter) are exposed to different and even contradictory perspectives, it teaches skills such as perspective-taking, abstraction and evidence-based argumentation. These are some of the basic components of critical thinking skills that are infused within state learning standards across the nation.
For people primarily concerned with traditional school outcomes, these critical thinking skills are positively linked to school and academic performance. The wide body of empirical research on conflict resolution education programs illustrates this clearly. Conflict resolution education programs (not to be confused simply with conflict resolution), such as those pioneered by Dr. Tricia Jones of Temple University, typically produce academic improvements in schools. And, this is not necessarily because schools may be safer. A byproduct of conflict resolution education is that students learn how to think in more complex, critical and sophisticated ways. These habits of mind translate into higher performance on academic measurements. The same can follow from ethnic studies. Thinking critically is not bound to one classroom. Learning it through an ethnic studies class can then transfer over into other classes, even for White students.
Replacing White Guilt. One of the sly accusations against ethnic studies is that courses make White students feel guilty and bad about themselves. Without a doubt, some White folks feel an abstract sense of guilt when they learn about some of the atrocities that White folks have inflicted upon people of color by action and inaction. Guilt is seldom a healthy place from which to act, so this feeling is certainly not productive. Ethnic studies courses — when working well — do not produce this abstract and unproductive sense of guilt. Instead, they teach White folks how to be critical allies in specific ways to struggles for equality. Stated another way, the opposite of Whiteness is not feeling guilty about being White; it’s not Blackness, and it’s not hip-hop either. The opposite of Whiteness is pushing against oppression, inequality and White privileges. And when White folks are doing those things, they are too busy to be burdened by a much played-out sense of guilt. As ethnic studies courses outline how people of color have successfully fought for their own education, liberation and humanity, this is a vital starting point for White folks to eventually join this important work and get in where they fit in.
Functioning in Today’s World. It has long been a statistical likelihood that White folks will be a demographic minority in the United States during the lifespan of current school-age children. Though many cities and rural areas still remain deeply segregated by race, the nature of the globalized economy and workforce means that the top leaders of U.S. industries will be working alongside people who do not check the same demographic boxes or hold the same social assumptions as they do. This global reality gives new importance for students to be able to function across differences. The guiding purpose that most consistently informs public education policy is to maintain dominance in the global economy. Perhaps ironically, ethnic studies programs like the ones (now formerly) in Arizona fit squarely within this purpose. Even if one subscribes to the ugly position that there is little value in studying the experiences and perspectives of people who are not White, one cannot refute the point that this area of study will prepare students — including White students — to be better leaders in today and tomorrow’s world.
As a whole, the recent iteration of the ethnic studies debate in Arizona reveals more about the longstanding political-racial ideology of the state than it does about ethnic studies classes themselves. To be clear, this political-racial ideology is one of White supremacy. Unfortunately, like the social toxin that it is, this ideology in practice will also have negative implications for White students by compromising the public education that could otherwise better prepare them for the world at large.