The Value of Ethnic Studies—For All Students

Despite arguments to the contrary, ethnic studies benefits all students—and research backs it up.

Sandra Cisneros' award-winning The House on Mango Street chronicles a year in the life of Esperanza, a 12-year-old Chicana girl growing up in Chicago. The novel covers familiar and frightening territory as Esperanza matures, “makes friends, grows hips, develops her first crush, endures sexual assault, and begins to write as a way of expressing herself …”

Her story of a life poor in material possessions but rich in culture is one with which many children, including Mexican-American children, can identify. For this reason, The House on Mango Street was among a wide selection of Chicano and Latino literature taught in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program, a welcome addition to the syllabus—until a surge of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment swept across Arizona.

What started in 1998—with a few classes—as a way to bring cultural relevance to the curriculum and boost academic achievement for Chicano students came to a crashing halt in 2010 when Tom Horne, Arizona’s state schools superintendent, accused ethnic studies classes of promoting “ethnic chauvinism.” The Arizona State Legislature banned the courses with a hammer clause: Any school district that failed to comply with the ban would forfeit 10 percent of its state funding. Point made. In 2012, the Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District voted to abolish the Mexican-American studies program.

Students and activists protested vigorously, and Cisneros joined a convoy of writers to smuggle The House on Mango Street and other banned books back into Tucson. But that was not the demise of ethnic studies. As of July 2013, Tucson schools are required to offer a “culturally relevant curriculum,” as mandated by a court order in a federal desegregation lawsuit brought on behalf of Latino and Black students after decades of segregation and racial discrimination. Culturally relevant teaching resumed, with materials from Mexican-American and black perspectives.

As a discipline, ethnic studies in public schools has seen its share of highs and lows. With a great deal of organizing and hard work by students, parents and activists, the Los Angeles Unified School District now requires ethnic studies classes as a high school graduation requirement. Just months prior to the Los Angeles decision, a move in Texas to add a Mexican-American course as a high school elective failed—in a state where Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in public schools.

The conflict over ethnic studies is equal parts xenophobia and political ideology, with white resentment and anxiety stirring the pot. While opponents target ethnic studies courses as divisive, they disregard how classes, textbooks and materials oversaturated with European and Anglo-American viewpoints are polarizing for non-white students.

“The majority of children and teens in U.S. schools today are people of color,” says Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. "In the past, the curriculum excluded the histories, knowledge and perspectives of those who were not white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and Christian, although people from all groups contributed to the world that we know today. Ethnic studies is essential because it provides young people access to the full spectrum of human knowledge, not just parts of it.”

Providing that knowledge is not just a gesture of token diversity. It pays off academically in student performance and graduation rates. Researchers from the University of Arizona found students who participated in Mexican-American studies classes had a 10 percent greater chance of completing high school. The value of ethnic studies was reinforced by an independent audit that recommended the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American Studies program not only be maintained, but expanded.

Courses that educate on the contributions of historically underrepresented and misrepresented groups pay dividends for white students as well. A safe space for all students to explore racial and cultural experiences and differences is especially relevant today, with the dramatic shift in the national narrative on race and justice.

“While students of color must wrestle with the implications of race in their everyday lives, it’s also important for white students to understand how the exclusion of diverse perspectives and voices from the curriculum means that we do not yet have the society that we deserve,” Thomas explains. “For all of our nation's founding rhetoric of freedom and equality under the law, all students in U.S. schools need to understand that not all groups were seen or treated as equal.”

Like Esperanza’s journey through tweendom, the ethnic studies tale continues to twist and turn. Earlier this month, Arizona’s outgoing state schools superintendent, John Huppenthal, leveled a parting shot, labeling black studies courses “objectionable.” His successor, Diane Douglas, upheld, saying Tucson “is in violation of the state's ethnic studies ban.” And this week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard testimony to reverse the decision making ethnic studies illegal in Arizona.

As the plot thickens, the surest justification for ethnic studies can be found in the sage words of noted black writer and social critic James Baldwin: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”​

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

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