As Americans grapple with shifts in culture and demographics, majority-minority California is developing a high school curriculum in ethnic studies, one of the first nationally. Not long ago — while managing his extracurriculars and winnowing his college choices — Eli Safaie-Kia, 17, found time to discover a draft of it.
Its contents were, in some ways, standard-issue: readings and projects aimed at fostering tolerance, offering non-traditional perspectives and helping a massive, multicultural populace better understand one another. But in other ways, the draft was confusing even to a Generation Z kid from a blue-state. For one, it presented Israel in a way that went heavy on Palestinian oppression and scarcely mentioned the Holocaust.
So unsettled was the Israeli-American teen by the California Department of Education’s proposed model curriculum, required by a 2016 law, that the Los Angeles high school senior fired off acomment to the department. “I kinda came across the document,” he said, “and once I began reading through it, it was a little bit disturbing to see how one-sided some parts of the ethnic studies proposal was.”
Now, as the comment period for the draft approaches its Aug. 15 deadline, hundreds of complaints, suggestions and op-eds have posted, from conservatives who don’t like its depiction of capitalism as a “form of power and oppression,” to parents stumped by its academic jargon to no small number of Californians who, like Safaie-Kia, wonder why it says so little about anti-Semitism. Even the author of the 2016 bill requiring the model curriculum has called for revisions. Separate legislation winding its way toward the governor’s desk (Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed an earlier version) would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement.
“OUR CAUCUS MEETINGS TEND TO BE RELATIVELY LOW-KEY BUT REALLY ACROSS THE BOARD PEOPLE WERE REALLY REALLY UPSET, REALLY DISTURBED …”
The model curriculum is intended to serve as a guide for high schools in a state in which non-Hispanic whites represent only 42% of the population, and its proponents say it’s the logical next step for a state that has already adapted, more than most, to an increasingly diverse culture.
But as anti-immigrant rhetoric, violent white nationalism and rising hate crime roil the nation, the furor around it, even here, underscores how far even California has to go.
For example, some commenters have complained that the curriculum’s language, examples and tone are so left-leaning that they won’t work effectively in more conservative parts of California. “After reading this latest school curriculum twist to the left, it makes the decision much easier to go with charter schools and private education,” one critic commented this month.
Supporters of the draft say it’s time for students to learn about the U.S. through a lens often ignored by those in power.
“Sometimes people want to approach ethnic studies as just a superficial diversity class and that’s it,” said R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a member of the advisory committee that worked on the draft. “Ethnic studies is an academic field of over 50 years that has its own frameworks, its own academic language, its own understandings of how it approaches subjects and our world.”