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'Herstory' is out as California revamps K-12 ethnic studies course guide

Nina Agrawal and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

California officials unveiled their latest try at an ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 students Friday, and it's clear their hope is that this time fewer people will be offended.

To appease critics of academic jargon, the new draft ditches terms such as "herstory" for the more traditional "history." To better honor diversity, teachers are encouraged to let the ethnic composition of the class influence study topics.

Still, the new version retains a focus on the four groups long associated with ethnic studies: African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos/Latinos and Native American and Indigenous peoples. That aspect could reassure leaders in the field of ethnic studies, who shaped the first version but had less influence over the revision.

All told, the latest draft represents an attempt at compromise among strong, difficult-to-resolve passions. Ethnic studies is innately and even intentionally political in challenging established norms. All the same, it embodies widely supported goals that include empowering students of color, nurturing empathy among white students and developing critical thinking and historical perspective among all.

The push for ethnic studies in California has recently gained momentum, buoyed by Black Lives Matter protests that followed the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Ethnic studies, supporters say, has the potential to dismantle systemic and unconscious racism through the education of the citizens of tomorrow.

"Our schools have not always been a place where students can gain a full understanding of the contributions of people of color and the many ways throughout history -- and present day -- that our country has exploited, marginalized, and oppressed them," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement Friday. "At a time when people across the nation are calling for a fairer, more just society, we must empower and equip students and educators to have these courageous conversations in the classroom."


Expect the reviews -- positive and negative -- to trickle in for weeks.

The debate is not merely for academics. This model curriculum is expected to guide teaching in K-12 public schools across California. The state Board of Education is scheduled to approve a final version by the end of March. And pending legislation would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement.

The latest version attempts to tone down references that some regarded as overly political or ideologically one-sided. There had been particular criticism of elements seen as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, although there were Jews on both sides of the debate.

Among those with reservations about the original curriculum were members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which had contended that the guide intentionally excluded Jews. The lawmakers faulted the first version for failing to explain anti-Semitism while providing an overly positive representation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.


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