Unearthing Scholastic Seriousness with Back-Boned Courage in St. Paul?

The Star Tribune ran a story Friday (February 22) headlined, “St. Paul Students Push Ethnic Studies as Core Classwork.”  Featured terms included “culturally relevant curriculum that teaches history through the lens of the oppressed”; “empowering of students to ‘develop into agents for justice in their communities’”; celebrating students’ “identity and ethnicity,” and the old reliable “strengthening self-esteem.”

According to reporter Anthony Lonetree, Minneapolis Public Schools offer similar electives, but not required core courses, as is proposed in St. Paul.

It would be easy – too easy – to dismiss the St. Paul effort, which is led by a student group called “SPPS Student Engagement and Advancement Board,” as just another example of politically correct excess in American education, with eventual courses having more to do with left-wing cant than anything unbiased.  But I choose to refrain from criticizing at this early stage, in part because nothing is up and running yet.  In part because supporters note a Stanford study that suggests such a course led to improved student attendance, grades, and graduation rates in San Francisco.  And in part because, as someone formerly immersed in a land-grant university, I learned long ago that great numbers of subjects, more than many might imagine, can be taught with rigor and legitimacy.

Still, it’s not premature to note that courses of this kind, especially in higher education, often are, in fact, ideologically leftwing and academically thin.  This is not always the case, but frequently is.

A test:  Imagine a women’s study department in a distinguished college or university.  Now try to imagine it led by a card-carrying Republican?  Take as much time as you like before answering.

Localizing matters, my American Experiment colleague Kathy Kersten has written about “women’s issues” and “gender issues,” among many other things from a conservative perspective for a long time.  She also holds an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, a master’s from Yale, and a law degree from the University of Minnesota.  So she’s well credentialed.  Now try to imagine the Department of Women’s Studies at the U of M inviting her to be a visiting scholar for a year?  If needed, take even more time.

Or imagine a black studies department at virtually any top-tier American university inviting Clarence Thomas – no, make that Thomas Sowell – to keynote a commencement ceremony next spring.  Far easier to imagine student and faculty protests demanding that neither African American leader ever set right foot on their bastions of free speech campuses.

I started writing about political correctness in education, particularly higher education a long time ago.  If anything, its destructive excesses have grown worse.  But this is precisely the unpromising academic and political environment in which St. Paul superintendent Joe Gothard, and school board chair Zuki Ellis say they’re enthused about developing what are frequently described as “oppression studies.”

Am I confident St. Paul schools will manage to sidestep decades of politically correct narrowness and nonsense?  Do I think there will be enough back-boned courage to unearth scholastic seriousness?  Do I believe students will emerge as likely to celebrate real American dreams as regurgitate unquestioned American nightmares?  Afraid not.