What ‘critical’ ethnic studies looks like in action

As my colleague Kathy Kersten and I have written, the push for ethnic studies at the Minnesota Capitol is rooted in narrow, harmful ideologies. It’s being framed as “a curriculum that reflects all students,” but as Jeff Jacoby points out in the Boston Globe, “the legislation says next to nothing about the cultures and traditions of diverse peoples. Instead, it explicitly casts ‘ethnic studies’ as an ideological discipline.”

While the term “critical” has been removed from the ethnic studies definition in the House’s proposed education finance omnibus bill, this does not remove the course’s underlying divisive and conflict-based ideology.

Activists are weaving an ideological agenda into this 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.

To better understand this overtly political brand, we look at the lead organization pushing for its implementation in K-12 classrooms: Education for Liberation Minnesota. My colleague Kathy Kersten did a deep dive into the organization and its national arm the Education for Liberation Network.

The EdLib Network makes no secret of its revolutionary agenda: to dismantle and replace America’s fundamental institutions. Or in its own words, it “promote[s] the transformation of existing institutions and the creation of new ones that reflect the values of Education for Liberation.” 

Two 20th-century Marxist thinkers, Paulo Freire and Antonio Gramsci, are central to the Ed Lib Network’s worldview. Though little known outside academic and activist circles, these men’s thought was hugely influential in producing our current cultural moment.

The name and concept of “Education for Liberation” are drawn from the ideology of Brazilian Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. Freire maintained that education’s purpose is not to pass on knowledge, but to build revolutionary consciousness among the “oppressed” to achieve “liberation” by overthrowing the system. For decades, his book has been one of the most widely assigned texts in many colleges of education.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist, has been called the godfather of cultural Marxism. In the 1930s, he proposed that a robust civil society renders Western capitalist nations immune to revolution on economic grounds. To counter this, he proposed that activists infiltrate and gain control of key institutions of civil society, like schools and political parties, to shape a new ideological consensus and organize opposition to the existing social order. This strategy has become known as “the long march through the institutions.”

Education for Liberation Minnesota continues such opposition to existing social order by promoting its middle- and high-school curriculum called “Teaching Abolition in the Classroom.” “Education is always a political act,” the curriculum starts off.

The lesson plans are meant to accompany a report on the Minneapolis Police Department put out by MPD 150, a “community-based effort” of activists who came together in anticipation of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 150th anniversary and advocated for dissolving the police department and in general for abolishing police and having a “police-free world.” According to MPD 150, “The police were established to protect the interests of the wealthy, and racialized violence has always been a part of that mission. The police cannot be reformed away from their core function.” The organization sunset in 2022 but its materials are still available.

Education for Liberation Minnesota members have also been active in developing this ideologically loaded version of ethnic studies in the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district. Now a graduation requirement, the class of 2025 will have to take a course called Critical Ethnic Studies. A PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here that lists pedagogy, course units, and a collaboration circle modeled after the Stockton school district’s ethnic studies program, to name a few. The Critical Ethnic Studies framework also shows the ideological roots of the course.

Education for Liberation board member and founding organizer with Education for Liberation Minnesota Dr. Brian Lozenski has served on the Saint Paul district’s ethnic studies steering committee, which was tasked with course development and implementation, professional development training such as pedagogy and instructional strategies for instructors, and grade level/subject area recommendations, to name a few.

The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) Twin Cities shared an article Dr. Lozenski wrote last fall that fully explains his type of ethnic studies:

Ethnic Studies centers the heritage knowledges and lived experiences of those who have borne the brunt of colonial devastation, including global Indigenous communities, women and genderqueer people, neurodivergent and the dis-abled, and those living in poverty. Ethnic Studies de-centers those of European descent and, for instance, inquires about the relationships between Black and Indigenous peoples, and dives into the formation and complexities of Afrolatinidad and Mestizaje. Ethnic Studies explores the colonial roots of the dispossession of Palestinian land and the creation of Zionism. Ethnic Studies deconstructs the racialization of Asian peoples and asks questions about colonization and conflict among Asian nation-states and the displacement of indigenous Asian populations such as the Hmong. Ethnic Studies demands language reclamation. Ethnic Studies demands an account of racial capitalism and its environmental impacts on the Global South. Ethnic Studies helps us connect so many struggles together in nuanced and complex ways.

In a 2020 MinnPost article that Lozenski coauthored with Jonathan Hamilton, also part of Education for Liberation Minnesota and a member of the Minnesota Department of Education’s social studies standards revision committee that added ethnic studies to the state social studies standards, they wrote that “curricula is a primary mechanism of white supremacy in schools.”

With Lozenski providing direction and feedback on course development and implementation, SPPS designed its critical ethnic studies course around seven principles — self-love, honor, community, critical consciousness, resistance, hope, and visualization. A read-through of these critical ethnic studies principles reveals they are largely borrowed from conflict-based critical social justice theories.

FAIR Twin Cities expertly breaks down this relationship, plainly showing how the principles embody racial and group identity ideology. I urge you to read their analysis in its entirety here.

So where do we go from here? For starters, we inform Minnesotans about the bait and switch going on with ethnic studies. Our winter Thinking Minnesota Poll results show the majority of Minnesotans reject this brand of ethnic studies once they realize what it actually is. With students struggling to master basic literacy and numeracy skills, politicizing our schools is not what Gov. Walz and his allies should be doing. Unfortunately, it’s their top goal.