Intentionally ideological: How familiar terms are being hijacked to advance an illiberal worldview

Far from its pitch as a way for students to “see themselves in the curriculum,” the push for ethnic studies in Minnesota is rooted in narrow, harmful ideologies. Activists are weaving these ideologies into a particular brand of ethnic studies known as “liberated” or “critical” ethnic studies, which is focused on dividing students by immutable characteristics and teaching them that life is a zero-sum power struggle.

But the overtly political nature of this version of ethnic studies is being glossed over in committee hearings, as very little — if any — time is spent on discussing the actual text in proposed legislation. I pointed this out yesterday in my testimony against H.F. 1269, the governor’s education omnibus bill, heard before the House Education Finance Committee.

In the bill, like the Senate version I also testified against, ethnic studies is defined as

the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigenity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States. Ethnic studies analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social, cultural, and political forces, and the connection of race to the stratification of other groups, including stratification based on gender, class, sexuality, religion, and legal status.

Additionally, the bill would put other ideological language into state law.

“Institutional racism” means structures, policies, and practices within and across institutions that produce outcomes that chronically favor white people and disadvantage those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. [emphasis added]

Race essentialism has no place in Minnesota’s education system.

The word “antiracist” is also laced throughout the bill, requiring use of “antiracist” curriculum, teaching strategies, and professional development, to name a few. But even antiracism, which based on the word alone should be easily supported, is actually heavily aligned with political ideology.

Opposition to this narrow, ideological agenda is not opposition to the importance of elevating the cultures, backgrounds, and contributions of all the people groups who have shaped our great state and country. Minnesotans agree this is important. But that is not the plain text of this bill, despite attempts to publicly characterize it as such, which distracts from the political underpinnings of this “critical” version of ethnic studies.

Tomorrow, Thursday, another “critical” ethnic studies bill (H.F. 1502) will be heard before the House Education Finance Committee at 10:30 a.m. This bill requires ethnic studies in social studies standards, which would embed it into history, geography, economics and citizenship and government, requires students take an ethnic studies course to graduate from high school, and requires a “working group” at the Minnesota Department of Education to advise on all aspects of ethnic studies standards and implementation, to name a few.

Below are my remarks on H.F. 1269 as they were more or less delivered. We were only given two minutes to comment on the 135-page bill, so I focused my remarks on the ethnic studies provision.

Madame Chair, members of the committee, thank you.

My name is Catrin Wigfall, and I am a policy fellow at American Experiment and a former public-school teacher. I am speaking today in opposition to H.F. 1269, focusing my remarks on opposition to the bill’s definition of ethnic studies.

My opposition is rooted in the plain language of ethnic studies in this bill, which politicizes the opportunity to emphasize ethnic and cultural understanding. That is where the focus must lie, in the actual words used to take over these familiar terms. The definition, though, is being glossed over through emotional appeals, that then frame those opposed to this narrow, political way of teaching ethnic studies as being close-minded.

But this is not disagreement with the importance of students learning about the histories, challenges and contributions of different cultures and the varied people groups who have contributed to shaping our great state and country.

As a former teacher who had a roomful of diverse students looking to me for knowledge, guidance, and wisdom, I witnessed firsthand the great strength in teaching and celebrating the many cultural backgrounds represented in my classroom.

Again, though, that is not what the definition of ethnic studies in H.F. 1269 is rooted in. Instead, if passed, we would have an ideologically charged course that is not constructive to, or supportive of, our multi-ethnic state. This liberated version that is overtly political in nature doesn’t celebrate individual identities, and would instead limit how students view themselves and society.

That is what discussion should focus on. I can’t imagine teaching my former students to view themselves and others through this narrow worldview. It risks taking us backward, and I ask you to not include this language in the final omnibus bill.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.