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Why Ethnic Studies Are Good for America

Ethnic studies are essential to our radically changing and diverse social landscape. Leaving them out of education would be a disservice to our children.
 
 
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There’s a proverb that says, "Until the lion tells his own story of being hunted, history will always glorify the hunter." This, in essence, is the reason for ethnic studies.

The wonderful thing about America is that we are and have always been a nation of many stories coming together as one. But an unfortunate fact of our history has been that, for too long, certain parts of our collective have been overlooked or excluded. Most American children know about Lewis and Clark but not Sacajawea. They know about Thomas Jefferson but not Sally Hemmings. Because of who has traditionally held the microphone (and power) in American history, certain perspectives are amplified more than others.

Wait, you say. I know who Sacajawea and Sally Hemmings are! Well then, good for you -- you have ethnic studies to thank.

The fact is that in our increasingly racially and ethnically diverse nation, we are not preparing our children for the future they face if we do not teach them a history that includes the many communities that make up our nation.

But practical arguments aside, there is a profound, moral imperative to tell the full truth of America’s history. I don’t want my daughter growing up to think that slavery and colonialism -- which are indeed parts of her heritage -- are anything other than unjust and inhumane, lest her generation go on to repeat the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, the way American history is taught often excuses such indiscretions for the sake of tidy nationalism, the naive notion that one cannot be a proud of America and critical of America at the same time. That’s not patriotism. That’s fascism -- enforced subtly through textbooks and lesson plans.

It is offensive to the independent and revolutionary history of America to not teach the inheritors of that history to think independently and critically for themselves. After all, in the earliest classrooms of our democracy out of which patriots like Sam Adams and Thomas Paine emerged, folks weren’t just talking deferentially about the history of the British crown. The full history of the world, including various perspectives on the American colonies, was essential to the critical consciousness that birthed our nation. To whitewash that history now -- as though, for instance, our Founding Fathers were not oppressive in their own right with respect to slaves and women -- dishonors the legacy they sought to create of an independent, free-thinking nation. In fact, were they alive today, I think our Founding Fathers would be the first to see how the world has changed and acknowledge how biased and incomplete their perspectives were so many centuries ago. They would be proud of the America we have become and want our full history taught, warts and all -- for the sake of continuing our national legacy of freedom and justice, rather than stagnating.

Some opponents of ethnic studies say that it teaches our children to resent government and America’s history. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s like saying you inherently trust a sleazy used car salesman more than a reputable dealer. Who are you going to want to do business with? The guy who tells you that the clearly imperfect and slightly dented car has never been in an accident and runs like new? Or the guy who says, "Yeah, there have been a few bumps here and there but the mechanic tuned her up and she’s got a lot of miles still to go."

By the same token, President Obama isn’t weakening America when he acknowledges our less-than-perfect past -- he is being honest and modeling for the world a new kind of diplomacy where the motivation isn’t the size of your missile silo but the desire to be part of the world community and global economy rather than left by the side of the road. Our President knows that, in an increasingly complex world in which American might alone can no longer govern, we will have more influence through being liked than being feared.

It’s ironic that these critics who think ethnic studies and honesty about America’s dark past are ruining the credibility of our government are precisely the same people who have been holding government’s head under water for decades. Do not be fooled into thinking they now want to protect government. They want to protect the power structure in which a small group of elites continue to dominate and manipulate our economy and our government to their exclusive benefit.

Pulling the curtain back to reveal the full story of that history of exploitation doesn’t hurt everyday Americans -- it hurts those elites, who have benefited from a one-sided story for far too long. Yet now they’re trying to manipulate us once again, arguing that teaching all Americans about our shared history -- a history that includes whites and Latinos and African Americans and American Indians and men and women, all of us -- will some how divide us rather than unite us. The truth is, learning about what we have in common, the 360 degree history we ultimately share, can only bring us closer together as a nation -- and help us all better understand the real problems and injustices that still plague us as a people. And let me tell you, with skyrocketing rates of unemployment and foreclosure and stagnant wages and rising costs of health care, ethnic studies is definitely not the problem we face as a nation. It’s a distraction. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will al stop being innocent prey erased from our nation’s history and prosperity.

Sally Kohn, Chief Agitation Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, is a community organizer, writer and political commentator. You can read more about her work at: http://movementvision.org.
 
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