February 15, 2024 - 8:00pm

California’s ethnic studies course has become a political minefield, and the latest round of fighting offers a warning to the rest of the US.

The state’s model curriculum for ethnic studies, which will become mandatory for California high school students next year, is explicitly meant to encourage activism. Teachers are to “make suggestions for ways that students can participate in service learning or activism in their school or local community” and teach them “how to gain political power through activism, organization, and mobilization”, according to the curriculum. 

It covers a broader scope of identity issues than college courses, which traditionally focus on black, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. Ethnic studies scholars, who consider the inclusion of Jews without lessons on the Israel-Palestine conflict inappropriate, are outraged by the curriculum, according to a New York Times report. Meanwhile, efforts at the local level to incorporate “liberated ethnic studies,” which excludes antisemitism and promotes the Palestinian cause, have inspired multiple lawsuits. 

Key concepts throughout the course include racial profiling, police brutality, “indigeneity”, settler colonialism, environmental justice, imperialism, genocide, language revitalisation, self determination, land acknowledgment and environmental racism. 

The California curriculum has undergone major revisions since its introduction in 2019, prompted by complaints from various ethnic groups, and now includes Sikhs, Armenians and Mizrahi Jews in addition to lessons touching on Japanese internment, California farm workers and anti-Arab bias. 

The fight in California is a harbinger for ethnic studies conflicts that will roll out across the US over the coming years. Ethnic studies courses have been authorised or required in seven states and the District of Columbia. The Advanced Placement program, which offers college level courses to about 2.5 million American high schoolers annually in 23,000 schools, has an African American studies course in the pilot stage and will make the class available to all US schools later this year. 

The course landed in the crosshairs of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who pressured the College Board, which runs the AP program, into making substantial changes to the program, including the removal of sections promoting reparations, prison abolition and intersectionality. The course is nonetheless expected to be an opportunity for teachers to go off course with politically and racially charged lessons. 

The push for further racial representation in school curriculum comes amid declining educational outcomes and soaring costs. California is a case study for this phenomenon. Among the state’s eighth graders, only 30% are proficient in reading, while 28% of Californians over the age of 15 are illiterate. About 160,000 students left the state’s public school system in the school years beginning in 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, a consulting firm called “Woke Kindergarten” has been raking in money training public school teachers in San Francisco on racism. 

As public education systems focus on social justice themes, it is black and Hispanic students who are consistently hit the hardest when schools perform poorly.

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.