In defense of ethnic studies
Officials in Arizona have spent an awful lot of time and effort in recent years trying to make immigrants uncomfortable. Most widely debated have been the state’s efforts to empower police to enforce federal immigration laws, but the schools have become a battleground as well. Atty. Gen. Tom Horne authored a law — directed at schools in Tucson — that outlawed certain ethnic studies programs, along with banning classes that promote racial resentment, encourage ethnic identity or, for good measure, advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles upheld most of that law, but his ruling, whatever its legal merits, should not encourage others to follow suit.
Supporters of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies program vigorously defended it as a way of broadening the curriculum and engaging the interests of Mexican American students, exposing them to material about their heritage and culture otherwise missing from the district’s educational program. Horne and others saw it as far more nefarious, claiming that it represented a takeover of public education by “radical political elements.” Tellingly, Horne and other authorities cracked down on the Mexican American studies program but made no move to strike the district’s African American or Asian American programs.
In upholding much of the legislation, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Wallace Tashima concluded that the state has a legitimate interest in barring teaching that advocates the overthrow of the government, as well as in reducing racial or class animosities. Given that, Tashima ruled that the law was constitutional in most respects (its ban on classes designed for students of particular ethnic groups did not survive his analysis, as he ruled that portion unconstitutionally vague).
But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s smart or advisable. Yes, ethnic studies programs can be polarizing — though they’ve hardly led to an outbreak of classes pushing for uprisings against federal authority — but they also are powerful vehicles for interdisciplinary education and ethnic pride. Arizona may find those qualities unsettling, but others need not — and should not — share those misgivings.
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