A school bus dropped students off at Mira Mesa High School. Photo by Chris Stone
A school bus at Mira Mesa High School. Photo by Chris Stone

The easy way to teach about ethnic groups is to list different foods, their recipes, herbs and spices, or to play different music with different instruments, or perhaps display different ancestral clothing.

California’s ethnic studies model curriculum envisions a more challenging approach. The overriding goal is to prepare “pupils to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.” California also makes this study a graduation requirement.

Becoming a global citizen requires an understanding of how other cultures throughout history have seen the connection between the individual and the group. These include lineage, clan, tribe, religion, class, caste and race. These have been the multiple ways of cooperating and being in conflict with others.

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It seems odd that that focus in one model of teaching about ethnicity in California has often been narrowed to race. Such an ethnocentrism works against becoming a truly global citizen.

I suggest we take a closer look at the two competing educational models, or paradigms, for teaching ethnic studies. At a statewide level, California has seen both critical, or liberated, ethnic studies as well as constructive ethnic studies.

At a local level, for example in Poway where I live, curriculum details can be found in its recent course outline. The emphasis is on the language of power and oppression: ”students will analyze: institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression.” This educational lens, or paradigm, is often referred to as critical consciousness.

However, if we think of the multiple ethnic groups that migrate to the United States, nearly a million yearly, we might ask why they bother to come here, especially if we have so much oppression, requiring race-consciousness to understand social disparities. What we know is these immigrants see the United States primarily as a place for economic opportunity, freedom and family, not one that features “institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression.”

California students in ethnic studies should not be in a competition to see who has the worst features of a national ideology. We need context, balance and critical thinking. And that is what the educational model in Poway, and many other California school districts, lacks.

One path forward is to challenge California students with competing educational models, or paradigms, in studying ethnic groups. After all, California legislation speaks of ethnic groups, not races.

This approach will provide students greater understanding and more flexibility in their intellectual skill set. It leans into education rather than leaning into indoctrination.

Paradigm A:  Critical Thinking — systematic, methodical, empirical, robust comparison of explanations)

Paradigm B:  Critical Consciousness — easily understood as critical thinking with blinders imposed on the data with the favored explanation being oppression. This paradigm is an ideological overlay to critical thinking. It often adds race consciousness to the explanation of social disparities.

To see how these two paradigms provide a different way of understanding American society, consider these opposing views focused on the educational gap:

Paradigm A: The National Society for the Advancement of Black Americans argues that “[Where there are rigorous reading programs] Blacks and other minorities outperform their White counterparts from regular inner-city public schools.”

Paradigm B: By contast, Bettina Love, in her book We Want to Do More Than Survive, “The achievement gap is not about White students outperforming dark students; it is about a history of injustice and oppression.” (p. 92)

Without prejudging these explanations, students would confront two explanatory perspectives. Students would follow facts, examine the various social contexts, and examine past and recent history. Let students draw their own conclusions.

Here is another, oft-repeated, but misunderstood concept: racism.

Paradigm B: The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.

Paradigm A: Racism, like tribalism, sectarianism, nationalism and the like are different societal forms of Us versus Them. We know that these different social forms incorporate the same antagonisms from the experience of Jews in being stigmatized on tribal, caste, class, nation, religious and racial frameworks. Similarly, “white” is preemptively narrow, given the perceived racial difference seen in other cultures such as found in Japan. We all are subject to invidious discrimination regardless of the social form.

Again, students would profit intellectually by being able to discuss these two perspectives abouit racism. Students would be asked: Is racism a matter of defining social reality (Paradigm B) or considering empirical differences and similarities (Paradigm A)?

I call upon all school boards to engage students, faculty, parents, and the community with a presentation that incorporates these two educational models.

We should be able to put on the ideological blinders of critical consciousness and be able to take them off. With critical consciousness we narrow the range of explanation, requiring students to channel their understanding into an oppression-based and, often race-conscious model. Critical thinking can include those concepts but also test reality with a broader reach of explanations and empirical data.

With a comparative model, we lean into an educational approach. Teaching only critical consciousness leans into indoctrination.

We should ask school boards again, along with parents, students, teachers and the wider community, “What is the optimal path for California students to become global citizens?”

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.