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Why Be Afraid of Ethnic Studies Programs?

When the Tucson Unified School District shut down its Mexican American Studies program early in 2012 after it was accused of violating state law, the matter seemed settled once and for all. But a closer look at the details reveal that the issue is still very much alive.

What led to the shuttering of the program was Arizona Supt. of Public Instruction John Huppenthal's threat to withhold millions of dollars in state aid because in his opinion the program promoted "racial resentment" and encouraged "ethnic solidarity" ("Arizona's ethnic studies gap," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28). Both are violations of Arizona law. Yet, in fact, the Mexican American Studies program was created as part of a three-decades-old federal desegregation court order.

But the larger question in my view is whether public schools, whether in ethnic studies programs or in other courses, should be prevented from teaching controversial issues. American history is not cut and dried. There are many events that have the potential to arouse anger in students. The treatment of native Americans is one such example. If students are prevented from learning about all sides of an issue, they are being shortchanged. I realize that it takes skilled teachers to do so without exploiting their position. However, I think it's worth the risk.

In the case of the Mexican American Studies program, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Not only did students report greater pride in their heritage but they also posted higher test scores and graduation rates than those who were not enrolled. Huppenthal's office confirmed that conclusion in an independent audit in 2011. Nevertheless, the benefits of the program are being downplayed. That does a terrible disservice to students.

During the Vietnam war era, the principal at my high school tried to suppress dissent among students by preventing the school newspaper from editorializing about the matter. His action infuriated students and their parents who rightly believed that censorship was not the way to teach students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens. His intransigence was the beginning of his professional downfall. I've long believed that education requires the freedom to explore unpopular issues. Ethnic studies programs are one way of doing so.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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