Ethnic Studies and Bible Studies in High School

The state government of Arizona has been in an ongoing fight with the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). For more than two years now the school district and office of the state Superintendent of Public Education (with assistance from the state legislature) have been butting heads over a Mexican American studies program.

Opponents charged that the program promoted ethnic and class division. Supporters of the program countered that the program promoted education and cultural awareness among a poorly-served minority group. They also argued that at the heart of ethnic studies is a message of inclusion.

Currently, the state seems to be winning the battle: a judge ruled in December that the state had the authority to severely punish the school district for continuing the program, leading school board members to vote 4-1 to discontinue it. Whether they will seek to reinstate a modified version in the future is unclear.

Then, this month, a state Representative from Tucson offered two bills that would pave the way for a for-credit elective class on the Bible in Arizona high schools.


Personally, I think the Arizona high schools would be better off without either the Mexican American studies program or the Bible classes. While it is theoretically possible for each to be taught in a neutral way that promotes inclusion and academic curiosity across religious or ethnic boundaries, I don’t believe that is really likely to happen in a high school setting. More likely, they will promote self-segregation among students into classes that reaffirm their existing worldviews. Such an outcome would be exactly contrary to the purpose of public education in a democratic society.

A better approach to meeting the education aims of these two proposals would be including them within the standard curriculum. If the Bible is so central to American culture, why not include that recognition within the existing courses on history, literature, art, etc.? If the students in TUSD would benefit from greater exposure to Mexican American literature and history, why not fight for the inclusion of those texts and topics in the standard curriculum? The half-measure of a separate course of study for Mexican American studies or Bible studies does a disservice to both those who would opt in and those who opt out.

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