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Are Ethnic Studies Divisive?

On Mar. 11, a federal judge ruled that an Arizona law to ban the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American studies program is constitutional ("Judge upholds most of Arizona law banning ethnic studies," Arizona Central, Mar. 11). The decision triggered protests because no move was made to eliminate the district's African American or Asian American programs.

That's a point well taken in a state not known for welcoming persons of Mexican heritage. But before jumping to conclusions about the court's ruling, readers need to ask a fundamental question: What is the purpose of ethnic studies programs in high school? If they exist to expose students to their heritage and culture, they deserve a place in the curriculum. However, if they are infused with views that deliberately promote resentment, which was the ostensible reason for the state's position, they do not. I want to stress the difference because high school students don't always possess the sophistication to understand advocacy. For example, a new biography titled Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left by Martin Duberman illustrates how even college students lack this ability. (For younger readers of this column, Zinn was an historian and activist whose writing of A People's History of the United States in 1980 was a best seller that roused students to protest.)

To make a fair evaluation of the Mexican American studies program, I would need to see the instructional objectives and the reading material. (The same goes for the African American and Asian American programs.) However, I think we do students in any course a disservice by attempting to shield them from controversial issues. Ethnic study courses have the potential to cause resentment, but the solution is to prepare for this probability rather than ban them. It's how the course is taught that is the key.

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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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