by David Safier
Mark Stegeman, TUSD's governing board president, has a wide-ranging op ed about his vision for the future of ethnic studies in today's Star. I want to make some general comments, which I may expand on at another time.
Full disclosure: Stegeman is a friend, and he and I have talked recently about the whole ethnic studies situation. We don't always agree (though we do agree on many points), but I find his positions to be serious and well thought out.
Much of Stegeman's op ed is about expanding the reach of the Mexican American Studies program.
Stegeman sees MAS going beyond a sequence of courses to provide extracurricular activities and academic support for students not enrolled in specific classes. Good idea.
This will take more funding, which he recommends. Good idea. Some of this extra funding would come from reduced administrative overhead. A laudable idea, though it's tough to reduce the administration of a program when you're broadening its scope.
The next step is where problems begin for me. Stegeman advocates a two-pronged change that would incorporate more of the curriculum in Mexican American Studies coursework into traditional courses -- American History, for instance -- and make the current MAS courses electives rather than courses fulfilling core requirements.
My opinion is, Stegeman should de-link the two ideas. Making standard American history and literature classes more inclusive of minority viewpoints and literature is an obvious plus. "American History" should not be synonymous with "White European (and mainly male) American History," as it was when I was in school and still tends to be. But turning the current MAS courses into electives is a bad idea.
Saying to a student, "The MAS course you're taking is every bit as valuable to you as the similar courses you could take in history and literature," makes a powerful statement. It creates an equivalency, saying the background, history and contributions of the one of this country's ethnicities is as worthy as a focus of study -- as an emphasis within a larger topic -- as the background of another group of students. Part of the strength of the ethnic studies programs is its inclusiveness and empowerment. Saying the courses are electives, that they are only supplements to the more essential courses, takes away from their weight.
I also worry about what happens when you tell students, on top of American History, or junior/senior English, you can take another history or literature course that focuses on a Mexican American perspective. Twice as much history and twice as much literature, taken at the expense of other electives like art, shop, choir and band? That's not a very attractive substitution for lots of students, especially those who are less academically inclined. My guess would be, the enrollment in the MAS program would drop to about half, and the enthusiasm for the courses would be diminished considerably.
These are complex issues, and I'm not sure I've looked at all the angles here. My suggestion to Stegeman would be: try to convince the governing board to expand the scope of the MAS program to include extracurricular activities and general academic support; begin the long, slow project of making the general American history and literature courses more inclusive; then, if those things prove successful, revisit the idea of making the MAS courses electives and see if that makes sense.