05/11/2012 01:04 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

The Importance Of Culture In Curriculum

The recent bans in Arizona on ethnic studies in K-12 schools have opened up a discourse on where the appropriate place for learning about culture is, whether in the home or at school. Learning about ethnic or racial cultures has been designated by those who are in favor of the ban as an activity that is best done through the family environment, separate from school sites.

First, this line of thinking assumes that racial or ethnic history, in conjunction with cultural traditions, is an already-known entity among the parents of school-aged children, wrongly presuming that all families have had access to a certain level of education and have been given access to this information. Given that there are indeed families who have not had the privilege of an adequate education that informs them of the rich history that exists in relation to their race or ethnicity, the banning of ethnic studies in schools only further oppresses these populations.

Secondly, what this thinking does not recognize is that schools can act as spaces in which students' cultural identities are shaped as well. Separating a student's racial or ethnic history from school curricula sends the wrong messages: that it is not worthy of being studied in a school setting, or that it is inherently separate from US history, both of which are ultimately debilitating for the students whose racial or ethnic histories are being erased. Including racial or ethnic histories into social studies lesson plans or integrating culture into project-based learning plans can be beneficial both for the student who has little knowledge of their own racial or ethnic history and for the student who knows plenty.

For students who are just learning about their own racial or ethnic history, the inclusion of lessons that pertain specifically to their own racial or ethnic history will make them feel as though their past experiences are valid and valuable to the classroom as a whole. For students who are already knowledgeable about their own racial or ethnic history, the opportunities that they will have to contribute during lesson plans that relate to their own cultural traditions or history will make them feel important in knowing that they are aiding in the creation of knowledge in the classroom. Quite the opposite of creating divisions, the inclusion of culture in school curricula will create a space in which there will be mutual understanding and appreciation for different cultures. The current ban only furthers marginalization.

The banning of ethnic studies from schools brings into question the role of education. What is the purpose of schooling? Is it solely meant to create a competent future workforce? Should the focus be solely to have children reach proficiency in certain key subject areas, as determined by standardized testing, or are we looking for education to provide children with a holistic set of skills? I always thought that empowerment was one of the most valuable products of education. If so, then why would the banning of ethnic studies, a regressive action that does everything but empower the student population, ever be allowed to happen?