[OPINION] Part II: Ethnic studies builds stronger ties among communities

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In a previous essay, I wrote that the passage of AB 1460 and its signing into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom provided a measure of protection against certain forms of censorship, such as the statewide ban in Arizona schools against ethnic studies classes.

There are actually more nuanced forms of censorship in California’s public colleges and universities. This form of censorship is illustrated by the debate over the ethnic studies requirement for the CSU.

A few weeks before Newsom signed AB 14560, the CSU Trustees passed what they considered an ethnic studies requirement for the university system. To graduate, CSU students must take a three-unit course “to understand ethnic studies and social justice,” which could be met by a traditional ethnic studies course or by a class on social justice.

This is deceptive: one can meet the requirement without taking any ethnic studies class.

The CSU idea, Ethnic Studies Social Justice (ESSJ), was advanced by Chancellor Timothy White, apparently without consultation with ethnic studies stakeholders, such as the CSU Council for Ethnic Studies, the California Faculty Association, and even the Chancellor’s own Task Force for the Advancement of Ethnic Studies. Five Trustees voted against it: the State Superintendent for Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, social justice activists Lateefah Simon and Hugo Morales, and two others.

To call ESSJ an ethnic studies requirement, when in fact, it can be met without taking a single course in ethnic studies is a very subtle form of censorship. Luckily, AB 1460 superseded it.

The standard college academic program is normally divided into two sets of courses. The first, called a general education set (GE), covers courses that one takes in the first two years of a nominal four-year degree program. These are survey and introductory courses, which pretty much cover everything from literature, history, math, science, and the social sciences. It introduces the student to a vast array of subjects that they could pursue. An ethnic studies course is now mandated by AB 1460 to be among these GE requirements. The second set, usually taken in the 3rd and 4th year, leads the student along a more specialized path, an academic major.

The GE requirements within the CSU have not been amended in the last 40 years. California in the 1980s is very different, demographically, from 2020 California. Then, 67% of residents were white, 19% were Latino, 8% were black and 5% were Asian. Today, California is a minority-majority state, where no one ethnic group is in the majority: Latinos (39%), Whites 37%, Asians 15%, African Americans 6% (2018 Estimates). This minority-majority population makes it imperative that students know something about our diverse ethnic communities.

As of this writing, a bill, AB 331 by Assemblymember José Medina (D-Riverside) is making its way through the legislature. This would make an ethnic studies class a requirement for high school graduation. “It is not a question of whether the subject itself is necessary but rather, how do we ensure the curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous and inclusive enough,” Medina said.

The American college curriculum is still predominantly eurocentric and white, mostly about men. Evolutionary changes to this have been taking place, to be sure. In addition to ethnic studies, many campuses now have programs in women and gender studies. Periods in the calendar are set aside to focus on special subjects: Black History Month (February), Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May), and Filipino American History Month (October), for instance.

The growing diversity in California poses a dual challenge for higher education. The first is to ensure that the curriculum reflects this diversity in being comprehensive and inclusive enough. The second is to make sure that students take courses that increase their awareness and understanding of this diversity; this is the purpose of imposing graduation requirements.

Within the CSU, many students are the first in their families to attend college. Many more are “working” students who have to balance a full-time job and sometimes family demands while pursuing a college degree. These and financial pressures do not allow them the luxury of taking courses beyond the barest minimum required for graduation.

Every year, when I was teaching, there would be at least one student who would come to class, unenrolled, until the absolute last day when enrollment required the instructor’s signature certifying that the student had indeed been attending my classes. These students do not have the funds to enroll at the beginning of the semester and must save these up from their wages thus waiting to matriculate at the very last minute. Such students count the academic credits they earn toward graduation. They do not have the luxury of taking extra courses out of interest. Left to their own devices, without the luxury of time, and a flexible budget, students will hew to a very pragmatic academic program devoid of extra courses in literature, history, the arts, culture and society, let alone courses about ethnic minorities.

Yet, educators recognize that it is such courses that contribute to the overall literacy of students, and prevents colleges from turning out “learned ignoramuses” — to borrow a phrase from Jose Ortega y Gasset. The GE component of the curriculum ensures a more balanced education.

There is a more pressing reason for making the educational curriculum more inclusive of the history and contributions of people of color. The educational system is society’s principal socializing institution. It is through schools that members are socialized into becoming members of the larger community.

With California evolving from a white majority to a minority-majority state, the inclusiveness of the curriculum in reflecting this demographic diversity is vital in breaking down racial stereotypes. In turn, this promotes stronger ties among communities.

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Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies at Cal State University, Northridge.

Enrique de la Cruz

*** Enrique B. dela Cruz, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the California State University-Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) from UCLA and has written on Asian Americans, Filipino-Americans and Philippine-U.S. relations.  You can e-mail him at enrique.dela.cruz@csun.edu

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