Ethnic studies should be inclusive, not divisive

If you’re interested in humanity generally, then you likely are interested in the histories and exploits of those from another background, or a different color. You’d be curious how other societies developed, their customs and beliefs, advances or mistakes they’ve made. And you may wish the government would not steer you around in your study.

Anybody would be enriched by such study, having their horizons expanded by greater knowledge of people from other walks of life.

In recent times, that curiosity has been grouped under the term “ethnic studies.” And in California, that topic is of intense interest to the state’s politicians – so much so that many of them want to make it a curriculum requirement. But for the topic to remain an enriching experience for everyone, the politicians ought to do something they’re not used to doing – let educators educate.

But nahhhh, these politicians want to dictate curriculum and educators are amenable. The Cal State system recently decided students must take a course in ethnic studies or “social justice” in order to graduate. A 2016 law requires high schools to create an “ethnic studies curriculum.” The Legislature has twice failed to put such a requirement into high schools as a condition to graduate.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill requiring such a program in some districts. A co-sponsor of AB2772 was Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside. Shortly afterward, Medina co-authored AB331 making the requirement statewide. After a backlash, that one was withdrawn temporarily.

The idea has returned, as Medina wrote recently in these pages. And it couldn’t come at a better time. The question: Will we enrich or will we teach racial and sexual bitterness and vindictiveness?

Medina wrote that he introduced AB331 because “the purpose of ethnic studies is not to stir intergroup grievances. It illuminates our failures in order to help us chart a more inclusive and equitable path forward.”

The initial draft didn’t put it quite so charitably. The withdrawn bill says history taught in schools wrongly emphasizes straight white males. It would have taught that “capitalism is racism” and described it as a form of “power and oppression.” More than a dozen types of discrimination were listed, but not anti-Semitism. The draft recommends a rap song that suggests Jews control the media.

Students would have needed a glossary to keep up with the trendy terms. Instead of “history,” they would study “herstory” and “hxstory,” a reflection, presumably, of deep contempt for the gender status quo.

No intergroup grievances in that draft.

The Sacramento political class withdrew the bill after voluminous backlash. A Jewish commenter said, “The problem is that it’s politicizing the curriculum. It’s a form of political indoctrination, which is not educational and should never be allowed in California schools.”

Maybe the re-draft will be an improvement, but don’t count on it.

As for “capitalism,” nearly all systems are capitalist, if by that we mean earning currency through work, to save or spend on a product or service. The complaint is probably about income distribution. The people in power want to take money from people they don’t like and give it to people they do like. Let’s see, there’s a word for that kind of system …

The income distribution set-up wasn’t great for my ancestors, who came here in the late 1800s penniless and uneducated. They dug coal – the work they knew in their native Italy – for low wages. They settled in the rural Southwest, which is where I grew up with people mostly of Native American and Hispanic descent. Most didn’t know what “Italian” was, and were pretty sure I am “a Mexican.”

Those people had immensely interesting – and quite different – cultures and customs, and each of us was enriched learning about them. Nobody back then informed them that I was a privileged androcentric oppressor.

Today our country has people from so many different countries, it’s a truly great time to learn about one another. Most will do so without the guidance of politicians. Those who want political guidance can get it for free just by turning on the television, and can even get most of the politically correct wording.

And if there’s public interest in teaching ethnic studies in school, let’s make sure it’s about cultures and the people within them and not the ideological proselytizing our politicians prefer.

Reach Roger Ruvolo at