Missing the mark: The proposed MN version of ethnic studies and its narrow ideology

As proposed changes to Minnesota’s K-12 social studies standards await review by an administrative law judge, I think it’s important to reiterate why American Experiment is opposed to the revisions, particularly pertaining to the addition of an ethnic studies strand.

This is not opposition to the importance of studying and celebrating the cultures, backgrounds, histories, and contributions of all those who have shaped our state and country. This is not opposition to students engaging in tough conversations, hearing different perspectives, and nurturing appreciation for America’s multicultural society. This is not opposition to studying the good, the bad, and the ugly of our complex history. Minnesotans agree this is important.

Rather, this is opposition to a particular brand of ethnic studies known as “liberated” or “critical” ethnic studies, rooted in an illiberal worldview with clear political underpinnings. Here is how this version of ethnic studies is defined in Minnesota state law:

“Ethnic studies” means the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity 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 the protected classes under section 363A.13 [gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, age, marital status, disability, status with regard to public assistance].

To better understand this intentionally ideological version of ethnic studies, we look at the lead organization pushing for its implementation in K-12 classrooms: Education for Liberation Minnesota. The organization describes the purpose of ethnic studies on its website.

The goal of Ed Lib MN is to be a political force in the state of MN to contend with the status quo of colonial education the prioritizes Eurocentric curricula, predominantly white educators and administrators, and a persistent attack on the power of communities to be self-determined.

The complex histories and experiences of ethnic groups risk getting flattened through this version of ethnic studies, which limits the American story to one long tale of oppression and exclusion.

For example, a proposed ethnic studies standard directs K-12 students to “use ethnic and Indigenous studies methods and sources in order to understand the roots of contemporary systems of oppression and apply lessons from the past in order to eliminate historical and contemporary injustices.” Fourth graders would then “identify the processes and impacts of colonization and examine how discrimination and the oppression of various racial and ethnic groups have produced resistance movements.”

Even in geography, a proposed high school benchmark directs students to “explain the social construction of race and how it was used to oppress people of color.”

Another proposed ethnic studies standard titled, “Resistance” directs K-12 students to “describe how individuals and communities have fought for freedom and liberation against systemic and coordinated exercises of power locally and globally.”

The Saint Paul school district, which requires students to take a critical ethnic studies course for graduation, shows us what this looks like at the school level. The district defines ethnic studies using similar terms as state law.

According to the district’s overview of its “critical ethnic studies course” presented via PowerPoint slides, the course is designed around seven principles, including one titled, “Resistance.” Notice the artwork that presents the overtly political nature of this principle: $15 minimum wage, No Human is Illegal, Black Lives Matter, Food Justice, Climate Justice, No Bans; No Walls, Abolish Prison, depiction of a gender queer symbol, depiction of a resistance fist, etc., and a bottom message stating, “Best When Planted Together.” This promotes “an automatic and interlocking political view rather than careful issue-by-issue exploration,” according to the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism’s Twin Cities chapter.

The use of “oppression” and “resistance,” to name a few, “isn’t the conceptual vocabulary of the dispassionate historian or social scientist,” writes David Ferrero for the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. “It is the rhetoric of ethnic studies, not ethnic histories. The two are not synonymous.”

Ethnic and racial histories — the experiences and contributions of different ethnic and racial groups in the US, the rivalries among them, the especially egregious injustices inflicted on some of them, the struggles to overcome those injustices, and instances of injustice and racism today — are taught in schools throughout the country. The best version of these classes teach ethnic and racial histories through multiple lenses, giving students a rich understanding of how these histories are connected to different ideas today.

Ethnic studies, on the other hand, is the lens. Its origins lie in the radical student movement of the 1960s and was created explicitly to underwrite a liberationist cultural politics. The development of the field over the last 50 years has stayed true to those origins. That is why ethnic studies advocates vigorously insist that ethnic studies is not “liberal multiculturalism,” which they disparage as “white-washing” — white supremacy with a smiley face. They know that the agonistic racial lens isn’t incidental to ethnic studies, it’s the defining feature. 

Despite the claims of its proponents, “ethnic studies does not promote the teaching of multiple perspectives,” continues Ferrero. “It applies a single perspective to teaching about multiple ethnic groups.”

Requiring an ethnic studies lens across K-12 learning standards enshrines a point of view “as settled doctrine,” concludes Ferrero.

Instead, Minnesota should take an inclusive approach to teaching students about our multi-ethnic world, which can, and should, be done without rejecting our common humanity, without dividing students by immutable characteristics or other ascribed identities, and without pushing alienating messages.