If you go to Berkeley High School (BHS), you’ve likely experienced the loaded question “So what do you think of Ethnic Studies?” at some point in your high school career. As the Ethnic Studies movement grows in popularity, the debate has become a statewide discussion. After a long fought battle, California recently mandated Ethnic Studies curriculum in public schools, although there have been delays in the implementation due to struggles over curriculum content. Luckily, here at BHS, the curriculum has already been adopted for students in their freshman year. The positive effects on students enrolled in this course prove ethnic studies should be taught for at least one semester at all high schools in California. For the class to be effective, the curriculum should be regulated in order to ensure that the class remains a safe space for all students. This will help promote open, critical thinking, and encourage a better-educated future generation.
Critics have accused drafts of the curriculum of promoting a left wing political agenda and containing bias against Israel and Jews. They object to the proposed syllabus promoting social justice organizing and examining the privilege that each student holds. After this backlash, the curriculum developers went back to the drawing board to create an educational program that balances the core values central to Ethnic Studies as well as pleases the political bodies fundamental to ensuring that the course can exist in classes statewide. Three members of the California Board of Education released a press statement, saying that “A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all.” Prioritizing these three goals for the curriculum will address the critique of intrinsic bias.
However, Ethnic Studies in and of itself will always seem to align with leftist politics and ideals, and claiming that the class is biased because of that fact is simply hypocritical. Most current history curriculum serves to propagate the acceptance of colonialism, westernization and, all classically conservative ideals, but because they continue with the dominant narrative, the biases woven into these version of history are all too often simply accepted and internalized. Ethnic Studies serves as a counter narrative to these ideals that we accept as essential to functioning society simply because we are not given another side of the story. The most fundamental part of a fully functioning and effective education is to grant students the tools to question their surroundings. Ethnic Studies as a class helps students apply a critical lens to the media and histories they consume or on a day to day basis. This often means criticizing in turn, many ideals or realities which are taken for granted, such as capitalism, colonialism, extreme poverty, or even country borders. Refraining from revering or upholding these topics in the curriculum, or even from teaching a narrative which supports such ideals does not mean that the class in and of itself is a biased one.
Additionally, there is some concern that such a class will create a toxic environment for non POC students or foster a space that only welcomes certain political ideals and isolates others. In reality, Ethnic Studies does not condone values that mirror or perpetuate hate speech, or that dehumanize or demonize groups of people for their identity. However, by creating a space where open dialogue is encouraged and students are taught how to engage in respectful and thoughtful debate through relationship based learning, the class can actually help to bridge political and moral differences and cultivate an environment of learning and understanding that many other courses simply can’t offer. Furthermore, this same rhetoric can assist in ensuring that no student feels targeted because of their race, while still pushing them to examine their privilege or oppression in their daily lives. In fact, Ethnic Studies can often make students who might typically struggle in school feel more comfortable in their environment. A Stanford study of high school students in ethnic studies found significant improvements in student performance. The research paper, authored by Thomas Dee and Emily Penner, expressed that “Overall, [their] findings indicate that a culturally relevant curriculum implemented in a strongly supportive context can be highly effective at improving outcomes among a diverse group of academically at-risk students.”
The Ethnic Studies experience at BHS however, is bound to be a different one than anywhere else in California, simply because of the unique political and economic situation that exists in Berkeley. How is it possible to regulate such a class where the outcome and overall messages that are formulated in that environment are so often very dependent on the teacher or students in that class? The answer may be simpler than we think. By instituting strict curriculum and creating a controlled hiring process for all teachers wishing to teach the class, a certain degree of control can be exercised over the direction that the class takes, which is more than most students would say about standard history classes.
Ethnic Studies creates a space for students to learn about ideas that are not taught in the everyday textbook. It teaches them how to question and critique standards everyone else might consider normal, and to stand up and speak out when they see something that’s wrong.
These values taught in Ethnic Studies can be kept with students for the rest of their life, throughout any career, and their formal education. Here at BHS, we can already see how the class has furthered a culture of activism and political awareness simply from the implementation during students freshman year. Imagine what a year of the class could do at a school where the political climate is even less suited for such a subject. By ensuring that students have access to this knowledge and skills now, we create a more aware, prepared future for generations to come, which is not something to take lightly in this era.