Governor Jerry Brown failed California's students last week, when he vetoed AB 101, a bill that would have positioned California to lead the nation by developing the first-ever statewide curriculum in ethnic studies.
The Governor called the bill "redundant," maintaining that the state's curriculum process already includes guidance on ethnic studies. The bill's author, Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), countered by affirming the potential of ethnic studies courses to advance cultural diversity but also prepare students for success in different fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
The social and academic value of ethnic studies curricula is well documented. Unfortunately, Governor Brown's decision reinforces a "STEM or nothing" mentality that disparages the current need for building cross-racial understanding.
Ethnic studies emerged on California's college campuses in the late 1960s. At SF State and Berkeley, students called for a more inclusive university and a curriculum responsive to the experience and perspectives of ethnic and racial minorities. In southern California, students called for the creation of ethnic studies at UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. As scholar Laura Pulido has observed, at the core of this movement was "a vision of ethnic studies linking the university and community."
I teach in the newly formed Long Beach Ethnic Studies Program, a collaboration between LBUSD and the Cal State Long Beach ethnic studies departments. This program is unique because it affords students an opportunity to earn both college and high school credit by completing ethnic studies courses.
Recently, at Jordan High in North Long Beach, I asked my students if focusing on STEM subjects is the only way to ensure their success. Some agreed. Others remarked that math alone is not enough. To succeed in business, I was told, they also need to learn how to navigate California's diverse workforce.
I want my students to succeed. But I do not believe in the techno-utopia proffered by Silicon Valley robber barons. I do not believe that we can "save the world with just a few clicks." An Assemblyman who voted against AB 101, Rocky Chávez (R-Oceanside), stated that the bill has the potential to "hurt" students. "The only way to make sure our children are successful in a world economy," he said, "is to stress math and science."
The movement to STEM-ify all curricula is alarming. I hear often that a liberal arts degree is "worthless." Likewise, I see ethnic studies departments threatened with downgrades due to "austerity." Is this because people of color and their allies won the "culture wars" of the late 1980s and early 1990s? Is the STEM-ification of curricula part of a new kind of "closing of the American mind"? When I see STEM exalted as such, I can't help but wonder if the devaluing of the humanities and ethnic studies is the new front for dehumanizing people of color.
The belief that technology will make racism a thing of the past disparages the reality of racism for people of color today.
Academic disciplines reflect their origins. Ethnic studies echoes the ongoing struggles of people of color to attain equality. Some will continue to insist that teaching about racism is "divisive." They fail to see how the past connects to the present. Others will continue to privilege STEM at the expense of ethnic studies. They fail to understand the world we live in.
Ethnic studies creates empathy through understanding. It benefits students of color and white students alike. In its origin, ethnic studies insisted on cross-racial solidarity. At SF State and Berkeley, students formed Third World Liberation Fronts, uniting students of color and their allies into cross-racial alliances. This is even more important today in light of black-brown conflict, debates over SCA 5, and other inter-ethnic conflicts still to come.
There is little question that ethnic studies matters. Students in select districts such as Long Beach will reap the benefits of ethnic studies. Others will have to live with Governor Brown's decision to veto AB 101.