Every high school student in California is familiar with the “A-G requirements” for admission to the University of California. These requirements codify what almost anyone would list if asked to describe the contents of an academically oriented high school curriculum: two years of history or civics, four years of English, three or four years of math, two or three years of science, two or three years of foreign language, a year of art, and a year of an elective. Or at least that’s the current standard. Depending on how a faculty committee of the University of California rules, beginning in 2030, students applying to the University of California as freshmen would also have to have completed a semester of ethnic studies, taught from a theoretically and politically radical perspective.
Since October 2020, the University of California faculty senate Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (UC BOARS) has been considering a proposal for modifying the entrance requirements from A-G to A-H. The “H” requirement would be one semester of ethnic studies taught concurrently with existing requirements. While that sounds as though high schools could fulfill the requirement by allocating one semester of English to reading the works of, say, Zora Neale Hurston and Amy Tan—or, even more mischievously, by having a semester of social studies based on reading Wesley Yang and John McWhorter—these approaches would not count as ethnic studies, since the proposed requirement mandates not only a substantive focus on ethnically diverse populations but also a specific theoretical and political approach.
The November 5, 2021, UC BOARS memo has to be read in full to appreciate it fully, but its essence is to require a highly contentious approach often referred to as critical race theory (a term that does not appear in the memo, though two of the memos’ authors have “critical race” in their job titles). The memo requires that qualifying high school courses would have to emphasize antiracism and antiracist solidarity. “Claims of objectivity” are to be critically examined and indigenous epistemologies cultivated.
Other requirements mandate more mainstream social-scientific concepts, such as understanding how race is socially constructed, but it is debatable whether that concept is important enough to be a prerequisite for college education, and it is extremely dubious to expect that the perspective implied by the rest of the memo would give this question the nuance that it deserves. The guidelines also require that courses include land acknowledgments, “honor anti-colonial and liberatory movements” locally and globally, associate “present-day ideologies” with imperialism and genocide, and engage in antiracist practice. That is, in order to enter the University of California (where I am a professor), high school students would had to have taken the kind of polemical course or courses that just a few years ago most faculty would have been embarrassed to see offered at the university level as an elective.
The University of California proposal would, in effect, set the curriculum for every high school in California. The California state legislature already mandates ethnic studies for public high schools, but the UC BOARS proposal goes beyond that. (The original version of the state legislature bill had CRT language, as well as support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it on those grounds.) The UC BOARS proposal would effectively mandate this curriculum for private schools as well as public ones. Organizations generally follow the imperatives and hints offered by their cultural and professional environment, and the most relevant actors for private schools are colleges—in particular, college-admissions departments. A California private high school would no sooner offer a curriculum that violated the University of California’s admissions requirements than an aerospace company would manufacture fighter jets that violate federal procurement guidelines or a stockyard would grow beef contrary to McDonald’s standards. If a California parent in the next decade is dissatisfied with the woke curriculum offered in public schools, he would no longer have the option to exit to a private school, unless he finds the rare one willing to forgo sending graduates to colleges in the state university system.
Fortunately, UC BOARS has yet to give final approval to the proposal; indeed, last May it added a message to its website noting that the proposal was subject to a “robust discussion.” A letter signed by almost 200 University of California faculty opposed the proposal, but another letter supporting it got more than 1,000 signatures (about half from faculty). It should not surprise anyone that UC BOARS began deliberating the ethnic studies proposal in the fall of 2020. The summer and fall of 2020 were times of ecstatic revival for the civic religion of opposing racial inequality; many organizations took stances and actions that they’d otherwise find bizarre or embarrassing. That fervor has since diminished somewhat, but actions taken in the spirit of a moment can create permanent structures of power that persist long after glossolalia has gone quiet. Those who lament the excesses of an age cannot always wait for the pendulum to swing back; some swings have permanent effects.