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NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Two weeks ago, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law that some critics call racist, not immigration this time, but ethnic studies. The new law prohibits some kinds of Mexican-American studies of Afro-American studies in public high schools and middle schools, precluding courses that promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily toward a race or class of people or advocate ethnic solidarity. Classes on the history of any group could still be allowed if they're open to all students.
Later in the hour, Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times joins us on The Opinion Page to welcome Sarah Palin to the ranks of card-carrying feminists.
But first, ethnic studies, and we want to hear from public schoolteachers and parents today. Should we teach ethnic studies? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We begin with James Banks, professor of diversity studies and director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington-Seattle, and he joins us from member station KXOT in Seattle. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JAMES BANKS (Professor of Diversity Studies, Director, Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington-Seattle): Thank you.
CONAN: And you've been working in ethnic studies for a long time, not just for colleges but for K-through-12 schools, as well. I wonder, could -- how did you react when you heard about this law?
Mr. BANKS: Well, I was saddened, and I felt it was very unfortunate because it was actually based upon misconceptions about what ethnic studies was all about.
It was based upon the assumption that ethnic studies was divisive and that ethnic studies promoted ethnic pride over unity and that ethnic studies - actually, I'm one of the founders of the movement in schools. Ethnic studies is really about bringing us together, bringing different groups together.
It's based upon deep, historical knowledge pioneered by people such as John Hope Franklin and his famous book, "From Slavery to Freedom." It's based upon ethnic studies such as the historian Nell Irvin Painter has published in her wonderful new book, "The History of White People."
So I think that I was saddened by it, because we've worked in ethnic studies for 40 years, and there's still widespread misconception about ethnic studies. That's why it made me sad.
CONAN: Well, there may be misconceptions, but I wonder, some people would argue that based on what they can see from test results, most high school students don't understand American history very well to begin with. Shouldn't we concentrate on that as opposed to ethnic studies?
Mr. BANKS: Well, it seems to me that's a false dichotomy, to separate American history from ethnic studies. Ethnic studies is a way of correcting inaccuracies in American history. It's a way of compensating for the way that blacks or Latinos and American Indians and other groups have been left out of American history.
So it's not about distorting American history, it's about correcting American history. So we need both - both American history in the schools, as well as ethnic studies, which gives an opportunity to have more depth and really teach the accuracy of America.
And if there's any doubt about the need, another important goal of ethnic studies is to improve the racial attitudes of black and white children. And if there's any doubt that's needed, if any of our listeners have seen the reaction of white students - young students, preschool students - to black and white dolls in the new CNN series about how they have very negative attitudes toward black dolls - even though the attitudes of black kids have improved, even though black kids show a white bias - but they've improved since the studies by Kenneth Clark.
So another important goal of ethnic studies is to improve racial attitudes, and if there's any doubt that we need ethnic studies, take a look at the CNN series on how white children and black children feel about black dolls.
CONAN: Should these classes be directed towards individual groups, in other words, Mexican-American students for the Mexican-American studies class - in other words, should they be exclusive?
Mr. BANKS: They should be for everyone, but they should deal with the history of America. But there's nothing -- we do need Mexican-American studies. We do need African-American studies. But it's for everyone because everybody in America, the history of ethnic studies is about them. It's not just about blacks or Latinos, but it's -- ethnic studies is for everyone.
And in my work in ethnic studies, I include Jewish-Americans, Polish-Americans. It's also about all Americans. It's not just about people of color.
CONAN: And should these classes be a mandatory part of the curriculum, or should they be elective?
Mr. BANKS: I think that -- I mean, I'd love to see them required, but if they're -- they can be required or electives, but I think that in most schools, they are electives.
CONAN: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation. Joining us from her home in Virginia is Linda Chavez. She centers -- excuse me. She chairs the Center for Equal Opportunity and wrote a recent op-ed, "Focus on U.S. History, Not Ethnic Studies," that appeared in the Dallas Morning News, and nice to have you back on the program with us.
Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity): It's nice to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And I wonder, what was your reaction when you saw this law passed?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, I -- you know, I'm not sure that the law itself was a terribly good idea, particularly given the tensions in Arizona at the moment, because the clear focus was on Hispanics and the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson school system there.
However, I think that Dr. Banks has described ethnic studies as a very benign thing, a good thing that we all ought to be wishing more of. In fact, ethnic studies have been quite divisive in the United States, and we've gone through a series of real scandals in school systems that employed such things as the Portland Baseline Essays, which had absolutely ridiculous, un-historical, un- factual things in them that were promoted in school systems around the country in order to try to boost the self-esteem of American black students.
And so I think we really have to take a step back for a moment and talk about what the purpose of public education is, what the goal of public schools ought to be in terms of bringing people into the mainstream and providing them the tools that they're going to need to be able to succeed in the United States, and that was really the point of the article that I wrote for the Dallas Morning News a few weeks ago.
CONAN: So are you saying that, in theory, there's nothing wrong with it; in practice, there's been a lot of problems?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I think in theory -- I guess what I'm really saying, Neal, is there's certainly nothing wrong with individuals wanting to have some knowledge of their ancestry, the history of the countries of origin from which they came. This has been part of the pluralist experiment in the United States.
But in the United States, that duty to teach those things has rested in the home, in the church, in the synagogue, in the various ethnic organizations that we're very well-known for in the United States. And it has been the role of the public school to try to teach what we hold in common, not to try to encourage any particular attachment towards one's ancestral past but rather to learn about the common experience that we share as Americans.
Now, that experience includes understanding the role that blacks and Chinese and Mexicans and Jews and Italians and Greeks and all of the others who make up this great, diverse nation of ours have played in building the country, but it is in teaching American history, not in teaching, for example, to Mexican- American students in a school system like Tucson to revere as their cultural heroes Father Hidalgo or Emiliano Zapata or characters that -- whose history is really in Mexico and not here in the United States.
Mr. BANKS: Could I respond?
CONAN: Go ahead, James Banks.
Mr. BANKS: The -- I think there's -- to say that there have been abuses in ethnic studies, of course there's been abuses in American history. Therefore, it's not logical to say because there have been abuses, we will then eliminate it or not teach it.
There's, of course, been abuses. But I -- and the other thing I want to react to is her notion that we teach American history, not ethnic studies. The point is that most of American history, historically, has been about Anglo-Americans and white Americans, not about the full America. That's how ethnic studies got started.
John Hope Franklin, in 1947, wrote the first edition of "From Slavery to Freedom: The History of African-Americans," because blacks were left out of the American story so that ethnic studies was constructed as a corrective, and the whole goal of ethnic studies was to make American history American, to make American literature American. And so that the notion that we teach American history and not ethnic studies is really a very misleading kind of conception...
CONAN: Linda Chavez?
Mr. BANKS: ...because ethnic studies got started because people were left out of American history.
CONAN: You said that. Let's let Linda Chavez...
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, as I said, I think starting really in the 1960s, and certainly moving through to the present, we've had a major move in the United States to make the telling of the American story more inclusive, not to exclude the voices of those who were black or brown, not to exclude women, for example, and that is all to the good.
I think it is -- that is the real telling of American history. But I think that's very different than the kind of thing that was being promoted, for example, in the Tucson school system.
One of the goals of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson was to promote Latino critical race pedagogy. Well, you know, for non-academics, that probably just sounds like gobbledygook, but the whole idea of promoting race pedagogy I think strikes most Americans as very un-American.
The whole point of the civil rights movement, the whole point of the inclusive of everyone in our society was to move race to the back burners, no longer to have race what infused our thinking, and yet here you have, in a public school system in Tucson, the whole idea of critical race pedagogy being promoted.
CONAN: And James Banks, we're going to give you 30 seconds for reply. We've got to take a break, and then we're going to get callers involved. Go ahead.
Mr. BANKS: The -- to teach critical thinking about race is essential, because what the research shows, that if we don't talk about race, if we don't teach race - about race - we perpetuate current racist notions. So kids need to think critically about race and to be taught to examine race.
CONAN: We're talking with James Banks, professor of diversity studies and director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington-Seattle; and with Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity about ethnic studies and the recent law passed in Arizona.
When we come back, we're going to get you involved in the conversation. If you have a student in high school, or if you are a student there, or if you teach there, should we teach ethnic studies? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Arizona's ban on teaching many ethnics studies classes takes effect December 31st. The controversy, though, started before the governor even picked up her pen to sign it into law. Again, schools will no longer be allowed to teach classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, that promote resentment of other races or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals. It also bars any course that promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government.
We want to talk today with parents and teachers. Should we teach ethnic studies? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
James Banks is with us. He's a professor of diversity studies and director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington-Seattle; and Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. She wrote a new recent op-ed in the Dallas Morning News titled "Focus on U.S. History Not Ethnic Studies."
Let's get callers involved. We'll start with Willis(ph). Willis is with us from St. Louis.
WILLIS (Caller): Yes, I think that studies should be taught because I was in the military and served as an equal opportunity advisor, and part of my duties involved teaching courses like that.
I observed in the Marines that were in the class, male and female, all ethnicities, that among those that the class was about, there was an improved appreciation and higher esteem on their part and then the awareness that was created on the part of the other service members that were in the class also contributed to appreciation. And I only saw positive effects from the classes.
CONAN: And these would be typically, what, 18-, 19-year-old kids?
WILLIS: No, I'd say from 18 to mid-30s or so.
CONAN: Oh, so - but intake for recruits?
WILLIS: No, no, these were the active duty personnel who had completed all of the basic training.
CONAN: I see. Linda Chavez, would you think that kind of training is appropriate?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Look, I think the idea of making us aware of the contributions of all members of our society to the building of this country is important but that's teaching American history.
The idea, though, of promoting a kind of sense of ethnic solidarity, trying to get students to think of themselves first and foremost in racial and ethnic terms is divisive. It is not what has worked so well for this country.
We are a nation that is made up of people of many different backgrounds. Most of us do not trace our ancestry back to the original Native Americans in our society. We all came from somewhere else. And if the whole goal was to keep us identifying as Italians or Irish or Russians or whatever, instead of beginning to think of ourselves as Americans, we would not have been the successful country that we are in being able to welcome so many people from so many different places. I think part...
Mr. BANKS: Neal, could I...
Ms. CHAVEZ: ...immigrant experience...
CONAN: Just give her a chance to finish.
Ms. CHAVEZ: ...assimilation.
CONAN: All right, James Banks.
Mr. BANKS: Yeah, I think Linda is really confusing and making a false dichotomy between being, let's say, Mexican-American and being American. What the research shows -- I think we ought to look at the research and not just have opinions based on whatever. The research indicates that children are much more likely to feel good about being American if the schools and the society reflects their culture, give them recognition, give them civic equality.
So it's a false dichotomy to talk about let's become good Americans, and let's not deal with people's ethnic affiliations, their ethnic culture. What the research shows is that one needs to feel good about being Mexican-American, about being African-American. Therefore, they can become better Americans and share the overarching goals of the nation.
CONAN: But James Banks, one thing you were talking about, classes like the ones that Willis is describing that were in the Marine Corps that were inclusive of all groups, not just one group in particular. And as I think you know, Linda Chavez has studied education for much of her life and is -- her opinions are based on more than just opinion. So that's why we have her on the program. So thanks very much for the call, Willis.
WILLIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to -- this is Michael(ph), Michael another caller from St. Louis.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, yes, I just had a quick comment. I understand the argument for diversity and for understanding our ethnic citizens who are, like, driving alongside us, like I'm driving down the road right now. I've got an Asian guy to my left and a black guy to my right, and I'm white, so...
But anyways, my point is if you're going to teach it, you've got to be fair, okay. And if you do a quick Google search, you'll find out that there's, well, over 100 ethnic groups, major ethnic groups, and if you really want to, like, get down and split hairs, there's probably several thousand.
So you're going to have to, at some point, if you're going to do this during high school, which I assume you will, you're going to have to start freshman year, go all the way through senior, have it be a four-year course where you teach one per week, okay.
You're going to have to teach white one week, black the next, Hispanic the next, in order to be fair because there's Asian people there, there's American Indians, there's Hindu Kush(ph), there's Indians from India, there's Canadians, there's...
CONAN: I think we get the point, Michael.
MICHAEL: Okay, one more thing, one more thing. Also, I understand teaching Hispanics, particularly, and what I'd like them to teach, if they're going to teach it, is they're going to have to admit that the United States, all the United States, all states in general, were discovered by Hispanics. They came from Portugal. They came and robbed the wealth of all the people that lived here, shipped it back to their home country, and they need to teach that.
CONAN: Most of them came from Spain, Michael, but in any case, James Banks, does he have a point about teaching, well, not just about Hispanics or African- Americans but about all the other ethnic groups, too?
Mr. BANKS: Of course we have to teach about all groups, but that isn't how ethnic studies is constructed. The way it's constructed is that we start with a concept, such as prejudice, such as discrimination, so that we organize ethnic studies courses in schools and colleges around key concepts and then we bring in examples from various ethnic groups.
It's not teaching an ethnic group per day, but it's teaching major concepts such as discrimination, such as culture. And these -- and then we bring in examples of these concepts from the groups that are the most appropriate groups to teach. So it's organized around key concepts, not around groups per se.
CONAN: Linda Chavez, some of the objections to this policy or to this program involve the idea that - or the belief that students were being taught that they were being oppressed by white people.
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, and that is, frankly, the goal of many of these ethnic studies programs is to create a kind of aggrieved class of youngsters who are going to feel oppressed or going to feel themselves victims in this society. And it is one of the things that I find most objectionable about the programs. I mean, the fact is Dr. Banks talks about prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination are a fact of life in most societies and most cultures.
They certainly have been a fact of history and a fact of history in the United States, and we have indeed discriminated against groups, but that discrimination, while it has been most severe against African-Americans, against American Indians and I think to a somewhat less extent against Hispanics, we've also discriminated against Germans. The whole passage of the law to prohibit the sale of alcohol was in part motivated by antipathy towards German immigrants, who brought with them their beer-making skills from German. We've, you know, we've discriminated against the Irish, the Italians.
You know, today we talk about European-Americans as if they are somehow a privileged group. Well, if you'd been looking at the United States in the early 20th century, people that we now consider white Europeans were not considered white, and they certainly weren't held in esteem if they happened to have come from southern or eastern Europe.
So, you know, discrimination, it's fine to teach about that, but let's do it in an even-handed way. And let's not try to make students feel that they are victims. I think that's not empowering, that doesn't raise self-esteem, and I think it does encourage the kind of racial divisiveness that is not good for our society.
CONAN: Let's go next to Lance(ph), and Lance is with us from Kennewick in Washington.
LANCE (Caller): Yes, a couple -- two, three things real quick. First of all, I need to primarily challenge your first guest. My first question to him would be how would he feel about high school teaching a Caucasian-American group only? Second of all, his assumption that ethnic studies are corrective to general history is one of the most ridiculous things I've heard because that's assuming that all ethnic studies classes are taught correctly.
Thirdly or lastly, as a taxpayer with three in the district, it seems to me that one well-taught history course with one well-qualified history teacher is a much more efficient means of expenditure of my tax dollars than a bunch of extracurricular, time-consuming ethnic studies. And I'll take answers off the air.
CONAN: Well, Lance, I should tell you that your first criticism is invalid. James Banks said these classes should be open to all, not just to one ethnic group.
LANCE: I know, but I'm asking how he would feel specifically if there was a course called Caucasian-American studies. Thank you.
CONAN: Well, all right.
Mr. BANKS: The whole notion of teaching about European Americans, I think it's perfectly fine to have a course on European Americans, but ethnic studies, the goal there is to include all groups. (Unintelligible) maybe I didn't give enough concepts when I mentioned prejudice and discrimination, but ethnic studies also teaches about culture, it teaches about cultural assimilation, it teaches about values of different groups.
And I think Ms. Chavez actually made my point when she talked about including white ethnic groups that have been discriminated against. And that's exactly what good ethnic study does. It teaches concepts such as discrimination in culture using various ethnic groups from different points in history, including white ethnic groups. And that's a very important point.
CONAN: Well, James Banks, I want to thank you very much for your time today. James Banks is professor of diversity studies and director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, and joined us today from member station KXOT in Seattle.
And let's get another caller on the line. Let's go next to - this is Jason(ph), Jason with us from Wichita.
JASON (Caller): Yes. Thanks for having me on. My comment is, U.S. history has always been geared towards Caucasians and has systematically taken parts that other groups have contributed to this nation, and that's my problem with the whole thing. When people try to make these ethnic groups that would study history, they're just like a gap fill because so much is left out. Like, I went to school here in Wichita and had to learn more about of my history that contributed to this country as an elective in the college. So if you add that before they even get out of high school or junior high, I think you have a better turnout about what this great nation actually has. So that's my comment. I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: And all right, Jason, thanks very much. And Linda Chavez, I'm sure you would agree that we need to teach American history better everywhere.
Ms. CHAVEZ: That's absolutely right, and that was the point. And the point of the debate, I think, in Arizona actually misses this. You know, they're all about what we're going to take out of the public schools in the state of Arizona, but nothing about what needs - need to be replaced with. And I think the point that I have made is that even American-born white students in many public schools across the country really do not get a good, adequate education and grounding in American history, American civics, American culture, American government, and that that ought to be where our emphasis is. And it's particularly important as we welcome newcomers in to our society. I think if you want to move people into the mainstream, you need to make them feel a part of the mainstream.
Now, being able to have stories of people who are like them, who look like them, is included in the teaching of American history is important. But making them feel out - as outsiders, making them feel as if they are victims and as if they are a persecuted class, I don't think helps build that enterprise, and far better to give them something positive, to make them see that American history includes them and to make them feel a part of this great society.
CONAN: We're talking about a new law in Arizona that prohibits some kind of ethnic studies classes in middle and high schools. Our guest is Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Linda Chavez, I wanted to ask you about a line if your op-ed. You said, we've elevated minor characters to major roles in American history if they fit the right ethnic or gender profile. Can you give us some idea what you were thinking about when you wrote...
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I'll tell you what the first thing that came to mind was that, when I went to the pharmacy the other day in my small town of Purcellville, Virginia, and the young pharmacist's assistant recognized my name. He said, he'd been studying me in his history book in the Loudoun County Public Schools, which I was quite taken aback at - not that I haven't, you know, done some important things, I guess, in the last 20 years or so. But I hardly think that I'm a character that ought to be in American history books.
And I think I'm there because they were looking for a Latina to put in whatever this history book was, and so they came up with my name, and certainly there are others. But the main problem is that we have, I think, really taken out of the curriculum important stories in order to make room for, you know, people like Linda Chavez to put into those books.
CONAN: All right. Maybe Linda Chavez ought to be in some of those books. Let's get Lola(ph) on the line, Lola with us from San Francisco.
LOLA (Caller): Hi, Neal. You know, in the '90s, I attended UC Berkeley. And we did a lot of protesting to protect ethnic studies and check up with their funding, took over buildings got arrested and the rest - kind of the whole nine. And this shocking reversal in Arizona, with this kind of strange retrograde attacks on - and just learning about other people's culture and learning about other American's histories, because it somehow diminishes the broadest (unintelligible) American history. It's just - it's almost farcical. I mean, I really - is this - what really surprises me is the level of fear and anger that people have about learning about different kinds of stories that exists within America.
America is such a powerful and dry, descriptive way to think about, you know, about men, about citizens (unintelligible) want to live here, come here, you know, but then - and most of them were here forcibly, like African-Americans or people who were here, born, like Native Americans. And I think there's a lot of important aspects to learn about the extent of America than learning about ethnic studies. And I also really feel that - you know, I'm Latina. I'm Mexican-American. My husband's African-American, our son is mixed race. And for him to have these kinds of stories that are going to be really, really critical. And so this little (unintelligible) banished this type of information is really - you know, I - I know this obviously is law (unintelligible) take seriously, but it seems laughable that people are so threatened against this. And if you can't...
CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Lola. I just want to give Linda Chavez a chance to respond.
LOLA: I'm sorry.
CONAN: Is the reaction to being threatened is reaction to fear as Lola suggests?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, as I say - as I said earlier, I think the impetus for this Arizona law was really a lot of fear going on in Arizona, a lot of just, you know, just concern about the presence of so many illegal immigrants in the state of Arizona. And, you know, I've been very, very critical of that, and in fact, have been very outspoken in my opposition to the legislation who passed the...
CONAN: The immigration law.
Ms. CHAVEZ: But on this issue, you know, I think the caller, you know, what is she talking about in terms of the 1960s and the '70s and the protests, you know, I taught the first Chicano literature course at UCLA back in 1970. And so my experience with this goes back a very long time. When I was asked to teach that course, I thought I was going to be teaching the writings of Mexican- Americans, mostly in the 20th century in the U.S., to students who were going to be interested in learning about that. I found out, very quickly, that most of the students had a very different idea. They really believed that they were there to rap. They didn't want to read anything. I had protests, students marching out my class. And basically, a reign of terror for the weeks that I taught that class. And even looking in Tucson, I mean, one of the things that...
CONAN: And quickly please. We're running out of time.
Ms. CHAVEZ: Okay. You know, I think the idea that we're going to teach people to revere people like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and Pancho Villa in the public school's in Tucson is disturbing. I don't...
CONAN: Linda Chavez, we thank her for her time. This is NPR News.