Nothing Is Apolitical
By jacqueline.allain on January 24, 2012
Arizona's ban on ethnic studies received a new wave of attention recently when an administrative law judge confirmed the illegality of programs that supposedly advocate racial solidarity and resentment. The debate over Arizona's ethnic studies programs has been raging since Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law in 2010, the same year that the Texas Board of Education voted to revise its social studies curriculum and textbooks to emphasize American exceptionalism and Christianity, eschewing many minority figures and removing focus from the United States' less-than-stellar record on human rights.
Needless to say, I am opposed to these measures; I find them unnecessary at best, and rooted in racism at worst. But instead of writing about why I think these laws are wrong or why I believe ethnic studies should be taught in public school, I am going to address a claim I hear quite frequently from detractors of ethnic studies. It goes something like this: "Why don't we just teach American history? Politics and ideology have no place in school."
First of all, we do, in fact, teach American history-- and it's required of all public school students. Second, I find the idea that politics and education should be kept separate really interesting, for public education as an institution is inherently rooted in ideology. The idea that the state is obligated to provide free schooling for kids between the ages of about five and eighteen is quite remarkable. The fact is that most Americans, save for a few extremists, recognize that education is a public good-- and that we're all better off because of it. When my little sister graduates from high school, my parents will have no kids in public school. Yet, they will continue to fund it through their taxes, and they will continue to benefit from its products: A more aware populace and less crime, among the other things that make public education a worthwhile, necessary institution.
When someone sends her kids to public school, she is implicitly supporting a facet of left-wing ideology. She is saying, "I believe in this institution. I pay for it with my taxes, and I reap its benefits." When a teacher teaches a classroom of multi-racial students, he is saying, "I believe that black people should be able to go to the same school as whites." That, too, is an ideological statement.
What gets taught in schools isn't chosen according to some objective standard, but rather, according to the values of a society. For example, most students are taught that slavery was an immoral institution. Slavery is considered wrong because it goes against our contemporary values (I say "our" as in most Americans); it tears apart families and dehumanizes people.
Public school students are taught to value all sorts of institutions and ideas: Democracy, religious liberty, love, and many more. There is no way to teach history, English, or even science without making judgments about what is important to cover, and what can be left out. The idea that it is possible to somehow divorce education and ideology is ridiculous.
My point here is not that because public education is rooted in particular political and social ideals, schools should teach students anything they want-- no matter how ludicrous, dogmatic, or factually inaccurate it may be. It is a teacher's job to give students the tools they need to think critically and make their own decisions, not attempt to convert them to a particular cause. There is a fine, but definite, line between promoting values like equality and encouraging one's students to fully adopt left-wing ideology, which is what many Arizonians believe the ethnic studies courses were doing, despite overwhelming evidence that the courses were no more ideological than any "regular" social studies class. Let's be real, here: There is no such thing as socially, politically an objective curriculum. There are lots of honest reasons to oppose Arizona's ethnic studies (not that I condone them)-- you don't like Hispanics, you are afraid of losing your white American privilege, you don't think Mexican history is noteworthy-- but pretending that you "just want to teach plain ol' history" is not one of them.
College student, future history teacher, and feminist.
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