The Mountain View Los Altos High School District is adding ethnic studies to its graduation requirements beginning next fall.
Are kids mature enough to discuss topics brought forth in ethnic studies? As an education reporter and someone not that far away from my teenage years, the answer is inarguably “yes.” Of course, this is a topic deserving of more than just a simple binary “yes” or “no” answer, but I wanted to get that out of the way.
We can disagree on the manner in which ethnic studies is taught, but to question the pedagogical worth of tackling discussions of race, sexuality and power is to be disengaged from both the reality of being a modern teenager and our sociopolitical landscape at large.
I can say with 100% certainty that by high school, teenagers are already engaging in conversations in some form about race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, politics and disability. Some kids, particularly those from disenfranchised groups, are naturally inclined toward sensitivity and intellectual rigor when discussing such issues with friends, family and their community, while others are not. Some of these “conversations” will come in the form of insensitive jokes, memes and bullying.
Ignorance of these issues can manifest in material harm and even violence. Just a few years ago, Los Altos High School reckoned with online racism by current and former students. More recently, Los Altos High bathrooms were vandalized with racist remarks and symbols. The victims of these stories are not abstract, they are not far away – they are kids of color within our community.
It is naive at best (“willfully ignorant” might be a more apt term) to think that teenagers need to be protected from content that informs their everyday existence. Online radicalization is a mounting problem, especially among young white men. Without thoughtful discussions of identity and power structures led by experienced educators, many teens may satiate their curiosity about these topics they hear about on the news by turning to the booming industry of online hate mongering, which has turned deadly on more than one occasion.
I understand that some people are distrustful of teenagers. Fair enough – their brains aren’t fully developed and they can sometimes be selfish and ignorant (of course, so can many adults). But at what point do we begin to grant them trust? At 17 years old, 18 years old? The day they are off to college and are already making adult decisions that have an effect on the “real world”?
If we want our youth to grow up to be kind, empathetic and honorable members of society, we have to stop operating under the false assumption that removing content from classrooms is protective. It’s not. It’s arguably the opposite.
By freshman year, many girls have already had their bra strap snapped by a boy. Queer kids have been called the “f-slur.” Kids of ethnic minorities have been affected by racist stereotypes. Jewish kids have seen swastika graffiti. If they are old enough to have experienced these transgressions, they are old enough to learn about the systems that create inequality in an academic environment.
Of course, there is going to be controversy about the actual curriculum of the ethnic studies course, because issues of politics and identity are complicated. I support community members armed with accurate information who are arguing in good faith for a curriculum they believe will help students gain the most comprehensive and fair ethnic studies education, but to insist that these topics have no place in our schools is where one begins to lose credibility.
As the Town Crier Schools section editor, I will continue to provide accurate and fair reporting that covers all sides of the ongoing controversy regarding MVLA’s ethnic studies program.
Jennah Pendleton is a Town Crier staff writer.
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