Getting ethnic studies right

Getting ethnic studies right

"We hope that California will ultimately serve as a model of how to create such a program. For now, it has some work to do."

California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign into law Assembly Bill 331 this week, which will require public high schools to offer an ethnic studies course by 2025, and to begin making the course a requirement to graduate by 2029. While the innovative educational effort is commendable, there are particular issues of concern to many groups, including the American Jewish community.

Critics of the proposed ethnic studies curriculum argue that at its core it is a far-left, highly ideologized narrative, dividing the world into two distinct camps: the oppressors and the oppressed. The curriculum, critics say, does not focus on teaching about the richness and complexities of various ethnic groups or their historical struggles. It does not promote cultural understanding. Instead, it creates divisiveness. Not surprisingly, Jews are cast as oppressors.

Last year, California’s department of education rejected the first draft of the proposed ethnic studies curriculum. Among the more vocal critics of the draft was the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which claimed the proposed curriculum effectively erased the American Jewish experience, omitted material on the issue of anti-Semitism, denigrated Jews and singled out Israel for condemnation. Critics also charged that the curriculum included an anti-Semitic trope and an anti-Israel lesson plan explaining the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

It’s not just the California Jews who are upset at the content of the proposed curriculum. Several other ethnic groups in California are also upset, and have joined with the local Jewish community in an informal alliance to try to get the proposed curriculum modified. Some of these other ethnic groups say that their history has been distorted to fit the anti-Western, pro-Marxist revolutionary ideology of the authors, while others note that they have been omitted from the curriculum altogether.

The caucus worked with the department of education to redesign the curriculum, and a new proposal is now being considered by the state’s Instructional Quality Commission. While the new curriculum is seen as a significant improvement, critics are still concerned that it has anti-Semitic components, and fails to describe the full historic and cultural scope of American Jewry.

The California Jewish community has been unified in its effort on this issue, and is currently lobbying for four reasonable changes to the model curriculum and its process: proper description of the Jewish American experience and teachings about anti-Semitism; ensuring that denigrating content about Jews and Israel, including support for BDS, is removed; inclusion of sample lessons reflecting the diversity of Jewish Americans; and a recommitment to transparency and the proper processes for the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.

Critics of the model curriculum’s Jewish content argue that drafters appear to lack an understanding of what American Jews are. According to Tyler Gregory, the executive director of the San Francisco JCRC, “The Department of Education doesn’t understand that Jews are an ethnic group. They’re looking at us like a religious group. And of course, we’re not just a religious group. And there are many ethnic-based hate crimes against the Jewish community as well. So they don’t understand us, which is ironic, because that’s the whole point about putting the Jewish community in, so that people understand Jewish identity.”

Ethnic studies programs can promote pride, broaden understanding and be a means of weaving Americans from disparate backgrounds together. They should enable students to see themselves and their classmates as actors in the broader American experience — a particularly important objective as America continues to move toward becoming a majority-minority country. We hope that California will ultimately serve as a model of how to create such a program. For now, it has some work to do. PJC

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