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Editorial: Lawmakers, don’t meddle in Cal State’s ethnic studies curriculum

A banner hangs at Cal State L.A. in 2014 in support of ethnic studies courses.
A banner hangs from an upper-floor railing as students demonstrate at Cal State L.A. in 2014 in support of ethnic studies courses.
(Los Angeles Times)

California State University trustees have approved a new requirement for students to take a course in ethnic studies or social justice in order to graduate. That might not satisfy the state Legislature, however, which is considering a bill that would narrow the requirement solely to ethnic studies.

The bill ignores the fact that California high schools may soon be requiring students to take ethnic studies courses too. But more than that, it is an unacceptable step toward trampling on academic freedom, which includes the ability of academia to determine the coursework needed for entrance and for graduation.

Ethnic studies courses focus on Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous communities because of the history of racism against them. Make no mistake, such studies have a vital role to play. Our nation is finally being forced to confront the burdens placed on people of color and the systemic racism they face.

The fight over Cal State’s requirement focuses on its breadth. Advocates for an ethnic-studies-only requirement argue that despite the need for better education on this subject, the Cal State mandate would allow students to graduate without taking a single ethnic studies course.

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Cal State’s offerings would include courses on other marginalized groups as well — Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people and women — and more general coursework on social justice. There are terrible histories of hatred, violence and intolerance against these groups and more. Legislators aren’t in a position to decide either the types of college courses students must take or the content of those courses.

Social justice courses, for example, could provide an especially insightful view into how low-income communities, which are disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous, have been treated. An environmental justice class, for example, might include the ways in which these groups continue to live in park-deprived neighborhoods, in many cases near polluting industries and freeway traffic exhaust fumes.

Another aspect worth considering: After botching its first attempt at a model curriculum for an ethnic studies course for California high schools, the state Education Department is expected to reveal a more focused course on historical and systemic racism against Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous Americans. That course will almost certainly become a high school graduation requirement, and it would make a lot more sense to coordinate the two courses so that students are expanding their understanding in college rather than repeating what they were taught a few years before.

Cal State’s newly approved requirement is very similar to UCLA’s well-conceived mandate for students to take a diversity-related course, which could include studies of issues around homelessness or the rights of disabled people.

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It makes sense for students to learn the fundamentals of civil rights, especially this nation’s terrible history of slavery and ongoing racism toward Black people, while they are still in high school. A third of them will never go on to college. But once in college, they should be allowed to expand their intellectual interests to discover the ways in which too many groups struggle against prejudice and intolerance.

Even if Cal State were on the wrong track, though, the Legislature should step away from any effort to set curriculum for the state’s vast four-year college system. The state Constitution forbids legislators’ interference in the academic workings of the University of California. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for Cal State.

There are plenty of voices within Cal State to press their case for course mandates, admission policies and the like. Those include various faculty and student governing groups as well as advocacy organizations.

The key to having great institutions of higher learning is guaranteeing them, and the experts within them, the right to determine their paths in teaching, research and writing, free from outside pressure. Even the best of political intentions become potentially dangerous forces when they try to bypass the gatekeepers of academic freedom.

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Politicians need to keep their hands off college and university curriculum and practice. Whether their goal is a noble one, such as ethnic studies courses, or a shameful one, such as requiring students to memorize the speeches of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, it’s beyond a slippery slope for legislators to require specific courses or curriculums in higher education. It’s a leap off a cliff.


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