Ethnic Studies: Take One

Isidro Ortiz / Draft NOtices - The late 1960s and early ‘70s witnessed widespread calls for ethnic studies in higher education. Across the country, these calls translated into the establishment of ethnic studies departments and programs, such as the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University. Like other units of its kind, this department has served as a vehicle for unprecedented instruction, path-breaking scholarship, and community engagement. Its institutionalization promoted the democratization of higher education. 

Almost 50 years after the movement for ethnic studies in higher education emerged, one of the most significant developments in educational circles has been the rise of a movement for ethnic studies in K-12 schools. The movement has encompassed educators, students, and members of the community at large. It has reflected the ethnic and racial diversity of today’s schools and promises to continue to bridge the boundaries that have existed among communities.

One might ask: what does ethnic studies have to do with counter-recruitment and militarism? The connection may not be readily obvious. The answer partly lies in a recent description of ethnic studies courses as curricula that “focus on the histories of marginalized communities, the promotion of a students’ critical awareness of social issues, and the encouragement of civic engagement and community-responsive social justice.” In San Diego, developments suggest that the promotion of critical awareness in ethnic studies can serve the movements against recruitment and militarism. A collaboration between teachers and students of ethnic studies and counter-recruitment activists enabled the adoption of limits on military recruiters in high schools and the elimination of JROTC gun ranges from high school campuses in the San Diego Unified School District. Without the critical awareness developed in ethnic studies, it is highly unlikely that students would have risen to the occasion to demand these reforms in the district’s policies.

From its emergence to the present, the ethnic studies movement has been subjected to criticism. Some opponents have asserted that ethnic studies does not accrue academic benefits, especially to low-income students of color. (As is well known in the counter-recruitment community, such students often have found themselves caught up in the “poverty draft” and been diverted away from higher education and into the military.)

Evidence of the concrete academic benefits of ethnic studies has been increasing. The most recent confirmation comes from a study of the effects of ethnic studies (ES) in the San Francisco Unified School District: “Ethnic Studies Increases Longer-run Academic Engagement and Attainment.” Conducted by Sadie Bonilla, Thomas Dee and Emily K. Penner, the study builds on earlier research in Tucson, Arizona, that found that student participation in the district’s Mexican American Studies program increased standardized test pass rates and high school graduation. It also built on an earlier study -- by Bonilla and associates, too -- of participation in ES in San Francisco that found that participation in ES courses “substantially increased attendance, credits earned, and course performance in grade 9.”

In their second study in San Francisco, the three researchers found that assignment to such ES courses “increased high school graduation, attendance, and the probability of enrolling in college” (which military recruiters regard as their main competition). Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the study has evoked attention across the country and bolsters the case for ethnic studies at a critical time.

As this is being written, the nation is in the midst of National Hispanic Heritage month. This celebration recognizes that Latinos have become “the nation’s largest minority.” Indeed, their numbers have grown to the point that sociologist Martha Tienda has coined the term “The Hispanic Moment” to capture this unprecedented era.

Unfortunately, such numbers make Latinos “the most enticing group for the military to recruit,” as Stephanie Muñoz has noted. Moreover, the growth in Latino numbers has been accompanied by the ongoing “militarization of Latino youth.” These developments are understandable given the characteristics of the nation’s Latino population. As the Pew Research Center informed in its study “The Nation’s Latino Population is Defined by Its Youth,” Latinos are the youngest major racial or ethnic group in the United States. About one-third of the population is younger than 18 and about a quarter of Latinos are Millennials.

In California, the state with the largest Latino population, Latinos now make up 52% of K-12 students in the schools in the state. At best, only a handful of schools have offered ethnic studies. Thus, the potential of developing the kind of student critical awareness on issues that ethnic studies curricula can build has been underdeveloped. In this context, ethnic studies becomes more critical than ever.

The academic benefits of ethnic studies are no longer in dispute. Now it is time to make ethnic studies available to all students. Any kind of ethnic studies? The next “take” will address this question and suggest ethnic studies as conceived and proposed in the Liberated Ethnic Studies Curriculum Model being advanced by educators in grassroots communities.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (

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