Why Ethnic Studies is Crucial to Public Education
Prioritizing Ethnic Studies in our education curriculum is an essential step toward decolonizing and rectifying an education system that for too long has refused to serve the needs of people of color.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Third World Liberation Front Strikes, the longest-running student-led strikes in the history of the United States. These strikes, which were begun by working class students of color at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley,, marked the first time that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students demanded an education that actually reflected their own histories–as told from their own perspectives.
Before this time, few if any schools offered courses that featured the histories and cultures of BIPOC in the United States. If BIPOC people or histories were mentioned at all, they were usually taught from the perspective of a mainstream, Eurocentric curriculum–meaning that BIPOC were mentioned as an aside, or as marginal characters in a larger historical narrative that centered on white people and their histories. For much of U.S. history, for example, basic knowledge of Greek and Latin was a general admissions requirement at major universities–a blatant example of racist policies at work in the public education system that explicitly worked to the disadvantage of students of color. Explicitly or implicitly, women and students of color were also barred from entering the university at all.
However, beginning in 1968, working class students of color presented a list of demands to their universities, which included: funding to establish autonomous Ethnic Studies departments featuring courses that taught the histories of people of color in the United States; hiring more faculty of color – especially Black faculty – to teach these courses; and increasing admissions enrollment for students of color. One proposal even demanded that the university admissions office not turn away a single applicant of color.
Fifty years later, however, Ethnic Studies departments in universities across America are once again under attack at Mills College, San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley, and other institutions of higher education. Increasingly, profit-minded university administrators are treating Ethnic Studies courses as superfluous and unnecessary to their “core curriculum.” They are laying off, firing or flat-out refusing to hire professors of color, and, increasingly, eliminating Ethnic Studies departments altogether.
It is highly telling that, in an era in which the cost of a university education is becoming increasingly unattainable to all but the wealthiest (largely white) minority of the country’s elite, Ethnic Studies has come to be treated as a nonessential elective, rather than essential knowledge that everyone, regardless of their background, has a responsibility to learn.
This is largely a product of a society that has come to view education as a commodity available only to those who can pay for it, rather than a public good unconditionally available to all. This means that university administrators, who increasingly speak and behave like the CEOs of transnational corporations, treat teachers, professors and educators as contractors with increasingly few benefits or even a livable wage; treat students and potential students as customers; and measure the value of a university degree by how much money it will generate for the individual who holds it.
It is essential that Ethnic Studies – which is the only field of study that explicitly centers the histories of people of color in the United States – be placed at the center of every educational curriculum, beginning in elementary school and continuing into higher education. Prioritizing Ethnic Studies in our education curriculum is an essential step toward decolonizing and rectifying an education system that for too long has refused to serve the needs of people of color.
However, none of this will be attainable without fundamentally altering the way we as a society think about education overall. As long as we continue to view education as a commodity that only wealthy people can afford– or, conversely, as a commodity that generates more income for the person who has it – we will never be able to make a case for the importance of Ethnic Studies to university administrators, since its value is not inherently monetary. In order to create a reality in which a field of study like Ethnic Studies would be considered valuable, in other words, we need to stop thinking about the primary purpose of education as creating economic mobility.
When students of color do not see their own histories reflected in the education they receive, it reinforces the idea that we are perpetual outsiders. When students of color learn about our histories from largely white teachers and faculty, it reinforces the idea that we are not the authorities of our own stories–it reinforces the idea that people like us do not belong in higher education at all. Ethnic Studies offers a corrective to centuries of mis-tellings in mainstream narratives histories which conveniently gloss over or completely omit the multitude of ways in which people of color have resisted settler colonialism, slavery, racism, and xenophobia in the U.S.
No understanding of our current reality can possibly be complete without giving the next generation of students of color an honest understanding of their past, and of the ways in which BIPOC have built this country from the ground up. We owe it to our youth to make sure that Ethnic Studies remains a vital part of all our education systems.