Ideally, high school history courses would not be so overwhelmingly focused on the accomplishments of white males and would pay more attention to the roles played by others. There has been progress in that direction — in fact, the College Board has come under withering criticism from conservatives for revamping the Advanced Placement course in U.S. history to be more inclusive — but the overall emphasis has remained the same.
That's one reason it can be helpful for both universities and public schools to offer ethnic studies courses. The current movement to require such courses, rather than simply to offer them, should be undertaken carefully, however. It's a complicated issue: How do students make space in their schedules for an additional requirement? Will something else get taken out of the curriculum to make way for it? What exactly will be taught in these courses?
UCLA, where a “diversity course” requirement appears close to gaining final approval, has gone about this the right way. Officials there reviewed research on such requirements and identified a range of existing courses that might qualify as well as new courses that might be offered. Students in a diversity course would have to learn about at least two marginalized groups, forcing them to reach across intellectual boundaries to understand the heritage and culture of others. The university worked to ensure that most students could fit such a course easily into their schedules. Only then did it put the matter to votes by the faculty.
Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Unified school board went in pretty much the opposite direction. It voted first to require a semester-long ethnic studies course by 2019 and only now will begin calculating what it would cost to develop and implement such a course — the district is in terrible financial straits — and whether there would be one blanket course or many covering different ethnic groups. If the latter, would they differ depending on the schools where they're being taught? Other unanswered questions: What other course or courses might be displaced by this, and is this the right course to require at a time when there are also calls to require a civics course and computer coding in L.A. Unified?
Supporters of the requirement say ethnic-studies courses will engage more students in a district where students come from such a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds — though when well-designed, such courses have value for all students. But some critics say that if the goal is to engage students by teaching them about their own cultural backgrounds, why not introduce such coursework in earlier grades, when students are more impressionable?
An ethnic studies requirement might be a worthy idea. The problem is that the school board should be doing its homework before it sets new mandates, not after.
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