In Thursday’s program, we covered the debate over a new Arizona law that targets ethnic studies programs in schools. One of our guests, Arizona state school superintendent Tom Horne, specifically called out a "La Raza" studies program in his state as racially biased, and applauded the new law for battling ethnic chauvinism in the classroom.
Well, it's about time. Where was this law when my mother "learned" in school that slavery was good? Or when I attended an elementary school named for a Confederate general? Or when my school library selected books that repeatedly referred to Native Americans as "savages"?
American schools that teach the history of this country as if it were color-blind AND free of institutionalized racism aren't just ethnically biased...they're wrong on the facts. And what this Arizona law fails to acknowledge is that many ethnic studies programs began because — for decades — people of color were ignored, slurred or misrepresented in history books.
Still, I don't buy the line that all ethnic studies teachers keep their own politics out of their lesson plans; lots of teachers don't. In my progressive, racially integrated, middle-class high school, I had one teacher —a black nationalist — who regularly spent class time railing against capitalism, denouncing the government and complaining that interracial dating threatened the survival of African Americans as a people.
But it's naïve to think that it's just teachers of color who cross that line. I had a very good white social studies teacher who once shouted down a black student for suggesting that race influenced the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan — and not Europe — during World War II. That's by no means a FACT, but it is a valid opinion, one that could have sparked an interesting discussion instead of a humiliating put down. And a very mediocre white teacher once explained to my class that affirmative action was compromising the quality of her profession. That's an interesting opinion, but not a fact to be dictated to impressionable students.
When teachers share their own prejudices with the class, administrators should tell them to stop it. But it's no reason to threaten the budget of an entire school system or the cultural education efforts of public schools statewide. Especially in these fiscally tight times, a law like this could make school administrators feel like they need to be political correctness cops. And frankly, public school teachers feel threatened enough: They worry that bad standardized test scores or budget cuts will cost them their jobs; that angry students will target them with false claims of abuse or sexual harassment; that parents will verbally — or even physically — attack them for not giving higher grades to their undeserving children.
Most educators want to influence the next generation, and that doesn't mean teaching only algebra or poetry. They've got life experiences, ideals and values that they believe will help young people better themselves. That's a good thing. Trying to legislate against abusing that influence creates another reason for good people to turn away from a profession that badly needs them.