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Secretary of Ethnic Studies?

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eye on the news

Secretary of Ethnic Studies?

President Biden’s choice to lead the Education Department has a thin record—except in one trailblazing area. February 2, 2021
Politics and law
Education

President Biden’s nomination of Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of Education was greeted with a sigh of relief from some education reformers—more for who he isn’t than for who he is. He isn’t a teachers’ union leader. He’s not a tenured radical. He isn’t a vocal charter school opponent.

Cardona doesn’t, in fact, have much of a paper trail. After working as an elementary school teacher and principal, he became an assistant superintendent for Connecticut’s Meriden School District (which serves about 8,000 students) in 2015. He was appointed Connecticut’s education commissioner in August 2019, where he served for a little over a year before being tapped for the presidential Cabinet.

But during his tenure as commissioner, Cardona was a trailblazer in one respect that merits strict scrutiny during his confirmation hearing this week: he oversaw the creation of America’s first state-mandated ethnic-studies course.

The Connecticut legislature determined that all high schools must offer—though students need not necessarily take—a year-long “African-American, Black, Latino, and Puerto Rican Course of Studies.” Proponents of ethnic studies claim, reasonably enough, that it is beneficial for minority students to see people of their ethnic background represented in the curriculum. Stanford University professor Thomas Dee, who authored a study showing GPA and attendance benefits from an ethnic-studies elective for San Francisco high school students, suggests that a “high quality” ethnic-studies curriculum effectively stresses “the considerable cultural assets” of minorities and their capacity to achieve.

But “ethnic studies” can also denote academic indoctrination into the political dogma of critical race theory, which holds that all whites are oppressors, that America is an inherently racist country, and that for nonwhite people to be “liberated” or for white people to be “anti-racist,” we must interpret human affairs through the lens of identity politics and advocate on behalf of left-wing causes.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a proposed ethnic-studies graduation requirement on the grounds that the curriculum was unmistakably anti-Semitic—as is common in political projects that involve racial stereotyping and scapegoating. Connecticut’s draft curriculum does not suffer from this problem, but it does read as a typographically sloppy and intellectually shoddy exercise in ideological indoctrination.

Only a handful of the proposed history lessons have been fleshed out to date, but the third unit from the first semester, on the Moors, an Islamic people who invaded and occupied Spain from 711 to 1492, is confused. The unit begins by providing the following “historical context for teachers”:

The Moors are an excellent refutation of the false narrative of African racial inferiority. These adherents of Al-Islam were the battering-ramp [sic] that conquered Spain, Southern Europe, and parts of France. . . . Like so much of Africans’ contributions to world civilization, the Moorish gifts and enrichments have not been generally recognized. . . . [T]he most stupendous aide [sic] and/or help was the introduction of Algebra and the Hindi numeral system at time [sic] when Europe used the Roman numeral system. . . . The old axiom that nature “knows no color line is true.” [sic] Many of the men of distinction in southern Europe were describe [sic] as having “swarthy complexions.” The Moorish presence in Europe, especially Spain and Portugal, given their long tenure in these nations, their strident advocacy of Africans being sub-humans, during the Transatlantic slave trade must be viewed in stark economic terms.

The course’s Learning Objectives and Essential Questions include this directive: “ANALYZE how race, power, and privilege influence group access to citizenship, civil rights, and economic power”; “POWER What do African American, Black, Latino(a), and Puerto Rican histories reveal about the United States, its foundation, and how power is structured today?”; and “RADICAL IMAGINATIONS What do African American, Black, Latino(a), and Puerto Rican history and culture teach us about radically reimagining new possibilities and more just futures?”

This language of “power” and “privilege,” as well as the implication that “RADICAL [political] IMAGINATIONS” should be derived from ethnicity, are clear manifestations of identity politics—and as such, incompatible with a politically neutral interpretation. But after hosting a listening session with the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective, representatives of the Connecticut State Department of Education agreed that it was critical that the state “support teachers in their role as anti-racist leaders,” and that the course provide students with opportunities for “anti-racist leadership.”

“Anti-racist,” according to best-selling writer Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Anti-Racist and one of the few contemporary thinkers cited in the curriculum) does not mean “not racist.” According to Kendi, there is no such thing as “not racist,” only “racist” and “anti-racist”—moral states predicated on political convictions and activism. In order to be an “anti-racist leader,” one must possess “critical consciousness” and advocate for left-wing political causes.

While Cardona could not impose ethnic-studies curricula on a national level, he could advocate for it from the bully pulpit of his Cabinet-level position and use other levers at his disposal, most notably the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, to advance critical race ideology in K-12 schools. Barack Obama’s Department of Education leveraged civil rights investigations and “Dear Colleague” letters to force school districts to adopt allegedly anti-racist discipline policies and to hire consultants to that end. The Biden Department of Education could coerce school districts to hire consultants or full-time staff dedicated to permeating the administrative culture and school curriculum with critical race ideology.

Before voting for or against Cardona, Senators should ask the nominee tough questions so that they—and American parents—can understand what to expect from the Department of Education under his leadership.

Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

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