The Lessons of Hxrstory

The Greek word for “inquiry,” rendered phonetically, is “historia.” The English “history,” passed through the medium of Latin, comes from that root—which is, incidentally, a feminine noun in the Greek. This is lost on the authors of California’s proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which is being developed to fulfill a requirement that all students in the California state university system take a three-credit course on the topic. The model curriculum employs “intentional respellings”—which is perhaps a respelling of “misspelling”—to render the word either “herstory” or “hxrstory,” apparently to expunge the coincidental “his.”

Such “purposeful academic language” is intended “to challenge various forms of oppression and marginalization.” The purpose of academic language is actually supposed to be to challenge ignorance and illuminate truth. Education that does so is also a powerful tool for challenging oppression. Language that confuses or obscures—such as calling “ethnic studies” what is really the study of marginalization and oppression—is not. Indoctrination is even less so.

What we have in the California curriculum, though, is something different: Indoctrination grounded in unintelligibility. If the state is going to tell students what to think, might it at least do so coherently?

The latest version of the curriculum, released in December for public commentary, is meant to improve on an even more ideological, and widely derided, earlier version. In the earlier version, “hxrstory” appears in the main body of the document. In the December edition, it appears only in a footnote. How traumatized would the authors be to learn that Leo Strauss predicted their writing technique?

As Emily Benedek points out in Tablet magazine, the initial curricular documents—which referred to the State of Israel as “Israel/Palestine” and to Israeli independence as the Nakba, an Arabic epithet that means “catastrophe”—seem unaware that Jews exist other than as agents of privilege. That has not wholly changed. (A discussion question for students in the December version: “When, how, and which Jews have experienced racial privilege?” A fact sheet in the same version: “Many Jews with light skin identify with the idea of white-presenting….”)

There is an even deeper problem, which is the profoundly confused conception of education at the project’s core.

“Confused” is an apt descriptor, because the summary document introducing the curriculum is a tangle of contradictions. It does not deserve the label “Orwellian.” It is simply incoherent. It seeks to focus on the experience of exclusion of four ethnic groups in the United States—which reflects at least two layers of particularity—in the name of promoting “holistic humanization.” Ethnic Studies is presented as a distinct discipline, but the document says it should pervade a host of others, from literature to geography to, in one document, math.

Teachers should “present topics from multiple points of view and represent diverse stories and opinions within groups (staying with the realm of inclusion and humanizing discourse…” (emphasis added).  In other words, multiple points of view, but not too many multiples—and by the way, those of you holding views outside of the acceptable range are apparently involved in “dehumanizing discourse.”

When education becomes a handmaiden of activism, it is invariably politicized. And those who do the politicizing succeed only because they already have the power to do so.

Students are supposed to “come to their own conclusions,” but one of the outcomes of ethnic studies is that students will take and act upon specific views, including a “critique [of] empire-building” and advocacy for “social justice.” The critique of empire-building and “systems of power and oppression” includes, just by way of helpful (and footnoted) example, “patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, exploitative economic systems, ableism, ageism, anthropocentrism, xenophobia, misogyny, antisemitism, anti-blackness, anti-indigeneity, Islamophobia, and transphobia.”

There is a lot there, but to take just one: The attack on “anthropocentrism”—apparently the belief that human beings exist as something different from and (trigger warning) higher than others in the order of creation—would render Judeo-Christian religions as sources of oppression that must be wrung from penitent students. Which may be the point (see above, regarding the Jews). As to “exploitative economic systems,” one wonders whether California could maintain its considerable state services without the revenue those systems generate.

In any event, participants in this curriculum will:

connect ourselves to past and contemporary social movements that struggle for social justice and an equitable and democratic society; and conceptualize, imagine, and build new possibilities for a post-racist, post-systemic racism society that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.

The conclusion seems inescapable: Students appear to be free to come to any conclusion they wish except a conclusion that challenges the premises of the entire enterprise. A student who, with Friedrich Hayek, thinks “social” is an unhelpful term for thinking about “justice” is not meeting the learning goals of the curriculum. Neither is a student who challenges whether racism is best described as systemic rather than individual. One who fails to “advocate” for social justice has presumably not learned his or her lesson.

And should the student see social justice differently—one might even say diversely—well, one shudders to think. The social movements to be studied do not include, for example, the pro-life movement. More than half of Latino Americans—a higher proportion than the general population—believe abortion should be illegal. Of course, this derives from religious views that are also anthropocentric.

The incoherence of all this might be reduced to this question: If “teachers should trust students’ intellect,” as the curricular documents say, can students question the need for an ethnic studies curriculum? Apparently not, since state law requires that students take it.

And here we pile irony on top of incoherence. Ethnic studies, we learn, leads to a critique of colonial and “hegemonic” rule. Hegemony, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entails “having a position of political” or other kinds of “predominance over others.”

Has it occurred to the authors of this curriculum that they live in California, a one-party state comprising more than a tenth of the U.S. population? This critique of hegemony is being hegemonically imposed by agencies under the direction of a governor and bicameral legislature that have all been under Democratic control for a decade. The activism the curriculum seeks to coerce is directed toward maintaining the political power of the coercers. For a discipline obsessed with power, the purveyors of this one seem remarkably indifferent to their own.

This is among the fundamental problems with seeing education as a handmaiden of activism. It is invariably politicized, and those who do the politicizing invariably succeed only because they already have the power to do so. This is a classic study in power replicating itself under other guises. That the guise is “resistance” is one of the oldest tricks in power’s book. It is why the Cuban “Revolution” is still called one more than six decades after it won, and why Mexico managed to get “institutional” and “revolutionary” into the name of the one party that dominated its politics for most of the 20th century.

Power operates in its own interest. But it might serve the interest of those who possess power over the curriculum of California’s public universities not to adopt a language and course of study in which most people—including those whose rights are supposedly being vindicated—do not recognize themselves. (Consider that just three percent of Latino Americans use the curriculum’s preferred “Latinx”; among the minority of Latinos who have heard the term, only a third endorse its use.)

More broadly, the problem with the curriculum is not its political imbalance. Were that the case, the solution would be to balance it with other perspectives. The real problem is that it is politicized in the first place. Genuine education—liberal education—may result in activism, just as it may result in a good job, or any number of other goods, but that is not its objective. Indeed, that benefit is least likely to be attained if it is directly sought. If teachers actually respect students’ intellect, one would expect that activism to lead in a variety of directions as students, whose intellect is fallible in addition to being respectable, arrive at different conclusions. But that would represent coherent thought. Clear thinking, of course, ought to be the first objective of education. But ideology rushes in where clarity fears to tread.



After the Blaine Era

The landscape for educational freedom is finally freed of nineteenth-century prejudices, but other federal constitutional questions remain.