Academia’s Self-Eating Snake

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 02/26/2024

High school ethnic studies is coming under fire in California and not for the reason you might think.

According to a recent New York Times article, all California public high schools must teach ethnic studies by 2025; and by 2030, students will not be allowed to graduate without taking the subject.

Bringing ethnic studies into high schools was presented by legislators as an effort to teach students about the diverse backgrounds of their peers—especially in California, where eighty percent of students are nonwhite. Ethnic studies, in theory, should be “a broad exploration of how ethnicity and race shape the human experience,” but the discipline, as it is taught in universities, is “narrower—and more ideological.” This is the version of ethnic studies being foisted upon California high schools, a study of Black Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans—ironic considering Asian Americans are now considered “white” by many.

To some in academia, ethnic studies have been a boon, while others, a plague. Administrative squabbles and legislative action have been made by both sides, but the issue is coming to a head.

The October 7th terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel not only plunged the two into bloody conflict, it brought the fight to the education sphere. Anti-Semitism skyrocketed on college and university campuses around the nation, with violent words and actions against Jewish students by anti-Israel activists. 

What does this have to do with ethnic studies? It’s quite simple, ethnic studies at the collegiate level teaches strong, one-sided views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “The Palestinian experience of displacement is central to that exercise, and has been compared by some scholars to the Native American experience.” Also worth noting is that since its conception in the late 1960s, ethnic studies have been saturated in pro-Palestinian activism, often promoting the narrative that “Israel is a settler colonial state.”

California’s proposed high school curriculum, which contains ethnic studies courses, “captures much of the discipline’s leftist, activist spirit.” But in the wake of the Israel-Palestine conflict, has eliminated discussions on current events and added in content about Jewish Americans. Therein lies the rub for ethnic studies extremists, who have proposed “liberated ethnic studies” which opponents call—and rightly so—anti-Semitic in its treatment of Israel’s history and the Jewish people. California teachers in certain districts have already been teaching the Israel-Palestine conflict and regional history as they see fit in ethnic studies classes. For instance,

In November, several weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, an ethnic studies teacher at Menlo-Atherton High School, in Silicon Valley, presented a lesson that inaccurately claimed the United Nations considered the creation of Israel illegal. (A U.N. resolution partitioned the territory into Jewish and Arab states, and the U.N. admitted Israel as a member in 1949.)  

In addition, a slide depicted a hand manipulating a puppet, recalling antisemitic tropes about secret Jewish control of government, the media and finance. 

Needless to say, Jewish parents protested the teacher and the lesson—but this is not a singular case.

The “liberated ethnic studies” is concerning, not only for its indoctrination of students but also for its ability to skew history to fit a modern or personally held narrative. This is what California must wrestle with as legislators and schools prioritize activism over solid education with their curriculum. 

Are high schools churning out activists rather than free thinkers? Where is critical thinking, reasoning, and logic? What happens when these high school students go on to college and beyond? If we’re lucky, that teenage rebellious streak will kick in and fight the status quo, but I won’t hold my breath.

Now, we are starting to see the reckoning, for good and ill. 

Disgust for our Western civilizational heritage and the American founding have led to the tearing down of statues—a first step in erasing the memory of the past. Bad. Some leadership at top higher education institutions are facing the music for their actions—or rather, inaction. Good. Colleges and universities engaged in radical activism have created a haven for international students seeking the demise of America and Israel. Bad

The ridiculousness of educational activism—critical race theory, ethnic studies, “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” etc.—over the pursuit of excellence, critical thinking, and reason, is hopefully becoming more evident. It is academia’s self-eating snake—and it is a shame it strikes at those who try to save it from itself.

Until next week.

Correction 2/28/23: A previous version of this article implied that Hamas is a nation. It is not.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Dan LeFebvre on Unsplash

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