A year after it was sent back to the drawing board, Californias ethnic-studies model curriculum is back. The last version, released in May 2019, was radical and jargon-laced. Even many progressives found it fringy. On August 13, the state Education Department presented a new, toned-down draft to the curriculum commission. Not only does it suffer from the same conceptual problems as before, but during their meeting, commissioners directed the Education Department to resuscitate unpopular parts cut from the 2019 draft.
The curriculum is moving toward adoption in March by the State Board of Education. Legislation is also advancing to make ethnic studies a high-school graduation requirement. The new curriculum wont serve the educational function that America needs in a time of broad recognition of injustice tied to race. Stanford education professor Thomas Dee, a co-author of a 2016 study finding academic gains for some students who took an ethnic-studies class, said in a radio interview that high-quality ethnic-studies curricula dont exclusively emphasize victimization. Just the opposite, he said. They stress instead the considerable cultural assets of minorities and their capacity to achieve.
Excluded from Californias model curriculum are the white ethnic groups (Italians, Irish, Poles and so forth) studied fruitfully by scholars such as Nathan Glazer, Daniel P. Moynihan and Michael Novak. Also largely excluded are groups like Jews and Armenians who were persecuted abroad and sought refuge in America. The groups that dominate the curriculum are African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and American Indians.
By focusing on these four and treating them solely as victims, the curriculum misses the opportunity to convey to students that groups at the bottom of the social and economic ladder can climb, making use of their cultural assets and the opportunities the country affords them. This curriculum teaches the opposite. It attaches moral opprobrium to success by instructing teachers and students that the Jews and Irish in America have secured white racial privilege.
Welcome to critical ethnic studies, which boils down to vulgar Marxism, identity politics and victimology. Ideologically blinkered designers of ethnic-studies programs miss out on knowledge and analysis from mainstream social sciences that could enhance what students are taught.
Gary Becker won the Nobel Prize in economics in part for his analysis of discrimination. Becker showed that if business owners hire on a basis other than productivity, they pay an economic penalty. They lose out on some of the most productive employees, and competitors may hire them. But when government policies protect established companies or ensconced workers from competition, that penalty shrinks, making it cheaper to discriminate. In the Jim Crow South, the costs of maintaining an exclusionary economy were unloaded on society. White companies and workers used government to stop blacks from competing.
Such insights can complicate the common view of labor unions as a humanitarian force aiding downtrodden workers. Unions are job trusts determined to dominate labor markets and raise wages by restricting the job opportunities of nonmembersoften blacks, historically. Herbert Hill, the longtime labor director of the NAACP, wrote in a 1965 essay that labor-union exclusion of blacks has had a cumulative effect in forming the occupational characteristics of the African-American labor forceto blacks disadvantage.
Sociology and social psychology also have much to teach ethnic studies about the role of envy in society. For example, envy of successful Jews and those of Jewish ancestry contributed to the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. The rulers of Turkey during World War I mobilized envy to carry out the Armenian genocide. The prosperity of Japanese-American farmers on the West Coast encouraged envious neighbors to seek their internment and forced sales of their property during World War II.
In his 1966 book Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, sociologist Helmut Schoeck demonstrates that envy can be found in all societies. The important thing for ethnic studies to teach students is that some societies check and suppress envy in helpful ways, while others exacerbate it with horrific consequences.
The revised model curriculum in California portrays capitalism as oppressive and gives considerable weight to Americas socialist critics. Yet history and political science show that the state can be used readily under socialism for racist purposes. Obvious examples include the Soviet Unions 1948-49 purge of rootless cosmopolitansthat is, Jewsand its 1951-53 Doctors Plot attack on Jewish physicians. Under socialism, a bureaucratic elite controls all job assignments, news media, courts and the secret police. When that elite is envious, insecure or looking for a scapegoat, what chance does an ethnic minority have?
The proponents of critical ethnic studies are so insulated by Marxism and identity politics that they miss insights from other fields. The new curriculum doesnt give a balanced picture of America and, in these racially charged times, it could ignite truly ugly disputes. Perhaps worst of all, it gives short shrift to minority achievement and deprives students of the optimistic view of America. Following this curriculum, students would have no basis on which to understand Frederick Douglasss defense of the U.S. Constitution as a glorious liberty document and his celebration of the potential of a country based on natural and inalienable rights.