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Did Arizona Ban Ethnic Studies? Not Exactly

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Did Arizona ban ethnic studies?

One might think so from the way its new ethnic studies law, which took effect Jan. 1, has been described and condemned. But ethnic studies programs across the state have declared themselves to be fully in compliance with it and most remain unchallenged.

Actually, Arizona did not ban ethnic studies. But its legislature did add two new sections to state education law and the new language has serious ramifications for intellectual freedom.

The first new section, labeled a "Declaration of policy," reads in its entirety:

The legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.

It's hard to be against that. Who would want to live in a state where pupils are taught to see others as members of groups that they resent and hate? But let's see how this plays out.

The other new section, immediately following, concerns "Prohibited courses and classes." Here we have specific instructions on what not to teach. Neither ethnic studies nor any other specific course or class is actually banned, but there are rules that all courses and classes must follow. Specifically:

A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

So it's illegal to "include" courses or classes that "include" any of a variety of things. What exactly is banned under this law? Presumably a course deliberately designed to promote the overthrow of the United States government would be illegal, if such a course existed.

But would it be illegal for the curriculum or library to include (among others) a book that promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government? What about a novel with a character who advocates the overthrow of the U.S. government? What about suggesting the overthrow of governments on grounds that might apply to the United States?

As for resentment, I don't know of any class that aims to teach it, but I know of many that teach uncomfortable facts that could lead to resentments toward various sorts of people. Some students may interpret some classes in ways that lead them toward negative attitudes regarding rich people, poor people, white people, men, ethnic minorities, extremists, terrorists, Nazis, Christians, Muslims or other "races or classes" of people.

The third requirement, however, seems reasonable to me. Courses in a public school should be open to all students who meet academic requirements and should be designed to educate them all. Education about African American history and literature should be part of the curriculum for all Americans, with supplemental options open to all students.

Courses about Mexican Americans may turn out to be of special interest to Mexican Americans, but they must not be specially designed to enhance Mexican American self-esteem. They should teach the truth about Mexican American history and culture. But this principle applies to all courses. American history classes should teach the truth about American history, including the parts that don't promote American pride and patriotism.

As for the fourth requirement, it appears that advocating ethnic solidarity may be okay if it isn't presented as an alternative to "the treatment of pupils as individuals." Hmmm. We'd better get this right because the law then provides for enforcement by withholding funding.

The section concludes by listing a hodgepodge of courses, topics and activities that "this section shall not be construed to restrict or prohibit." Teachers may still address the Holocaust and other instances of genocide or oppression and may still "include the discussion of controversial aspects of history." After recognizing the threat that the law posed to academic freedom, the legislature apparently added some language to mitigate the damage.

The law remains damaging and objectionable, however. Although legislatures have a legitimate role in providing for student access, academic integrity and intellectual freedom in public schools, they have no business telling teachers what to teach and even less telling them what not to teach. Legislatures should respect the academic freedom of schools, teachers, and students.