The California public school and university systems have seen their fair share of controversy—from outrage at the Islamist Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) involvement in a San Diego “anti-bullying” program to blowback against the Burbank Unified School District’s practice of temporarily discontinuing the teaching of classic books.

Now, the state’s Department of Education is back in the hot-seat as its much-reviled “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) ” has once again made headlines for its reliance on the neo-Marxist (so-called) academic discipline known as “Critical Ethnic Studies.”

On January 22, the online media outlet United Press International reported:

The California Department of Education is finalizing a model ethnic studies curriculum designed to teach students in public high schools about the history, culture and contributions to American society of historically marginalized people.

Developing the model has taken five years, with two previous drafts criticized in thousands of comments from groups ranging from Sikhs to Korean Americans saying they were underrepresented or mischaracterized. Public comments on the third and final draft closed Thursday [January 21], with some groups still unhappy.

It’s not difficult to see why. Despite widespread blowback, the ESMC’s entire framework is rooted in the (so-called) academic disciplines of “Critical Theory” and its close relative “Critical Ethnic Studies.”

The online academic journal, Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, explains that “Critical Theory” stems from

several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School…Critical Theorists…seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression…[by] explain[ing] what is wrong with current social reality, identify[ing] the actors to change it, and provid[ing] both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.

“Critical Ethnic Studies,”according to the Critical Ethnic Studies academic journal, is concerned with “the histories of colonialism and conquest, racial chattel slavery, and white supremacist patriarchies and heteronormativities.” The Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA) seeks to “produce critical engagement about white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, militarism, occupation, indigeneity, neocolonialism, migration, and anti-blackness in order to expand the conceptual parameters and transformative capacities of ethnic studies.”

The field is patently opposed to the “U.S. Empire” and American capitalism (which it judges as completely immoral) and looks with disdain at “the nation-state model”; its overarching theme is one of the oppressor versus the oppressed, categorizations which it claims are inherently tied to the racial, ethnic, religious, class, and sexual identities of different groups. It then necessitates political activism and “community engagement” based on these guiding principles.

We’ve covered the issue of “Critical Ethnic Studies” in California before, including when the California State University system announced that it would begin requiring all students to take courses on “ethnic studies and social justice” in order to graduate; and when California governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in August 2020 mandating the same. We’ve also published dozens of posts about the Critical Theory sub-genre, Critical Race Theory (CRT). (In fact, this week we launched a new website,, tracking the imposition of mandatory CRT courses or training in institutions of higher education.)

So far, the “Critical Theory”-inspired ESMC has appeared in three different iterations, all of which were published on the Department of Education website so that the public could comment and make suggestions. And comment they did.

The drafts of the ESMC were, in the words of the Los Angeles Times,

an impenetrable melange of academic jargon and politically correct pronouncements. It’s hard to wade through all the references to hxrstory and womxn and misogynoir and cisheteropatriarchy.

…This curriculum feels like it is more about imposing predigested political views on students than about widening their perspectives.

In fact, as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal summarized:

Excluded from California’s model curriculum are the white ethnic groups (Italians, Irish, Poles and so forth) studied fruitfully by scholars such as Nathan Glazer, Daniel P. Moynihan and Michael Novak. Also largely excluded are groups like Jews and Armenians who were persecuted abroad and sought refuge in America. The groups that dominate the curriculum are African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and American Indians.

And, like other professed “intersectional” “social justice” pursuits, the document singled out Israel for opprobrium and framed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign as a righteous liberation movement. This is not surprising given that the committee of ESMC authors are virtually all political activists (employed in education) who support BDS; the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, meanwhile, publicly endorses the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

In August 2020, we joined a whopping 85 other community and student organizations in an effort spearheaded by the AMCHA Initiative (a California-based non-profit organization that documents, studies, and fights expressions of anti-Semitism on campuses across the United States and Canada) opposing the ESMC. A letter outlining the extensive problems with the curriculum was signed by these groups and sent to Soomin Chao, chair of the Instructional Quality Commission at the California Department of Education. You can read the entire letter below.

Orgs to CSU Ethnic Studies Requirement 10.27.20 by Samantha Mandeles on Scribd

Now, with the ESMC having undergone not one, but two revisions (the Department of Education has just finished accepting comments on the newest version), the document appears only somewhat improved. The Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, which has thoroughly reviewed and critiqued the most recent ESMC, stated:

The December, 2020 draft of the California Department of Education (CDE) Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) is a significant improvement over previous versions, reflecting openness and responsiveness to public input. While the ESMC is undoubtedly heading in the right direction, StandWithUs has submitted a new set of analysis and recommendations to address a number of issues that we found in our review of the current draft.

(Following that statement is a long and comprehensive list of problematic language, citations, and assertions, with well-researched suggestions to fix each one.) Still, however, even using the newest version,

…students will have learned almost nothing about any aspect of Jewish culture, history, or traditions. About oppression, however –– which is mentioned over 60 times in other parts of the curriculum and just once in reference to Jews –– what children will be taught about Jews is that “internalized oppression” leads Jews to change their names in order to hide their Jewishness. And they will learn that “this practice of name-changing continues to the present day.”

What children will not be taught is the actual history of the oppression of Jews. They will not learn about the forced conversions of Jews under Islam or The Inquisition. They will not learn about the long history of discrimination, pogroms and expulsions from scores of countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. They will not be taught to recognize anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, many of which are still circulated today. They will not even learn about the atrocities perpetuated against Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. (Notably, of the five instances of the word “Nazi” in the entire curriculum, only two have anything to do with Jews –– and only tangentially.)

Even the section titled, “Jewish Americans: Identity, Intersectionality, and Complicating Ideas of Race” is not exactly about Jewish Americans. It is more accurately a lesson about identity, intersectionality, and race, and it uses Jews to illustrate those concepts.

In addition, while the newest version of the curriculum features “bold claims about the benefits of [an] Ethnic Studies curriculum,” a scholarly review of the document found that those claims are supported by “misrepresentations of social science research and insufficient evidence.” Thirty-five academics outlined their concerns in a January letter to California’s State Superintendent of Public Education and the president of the State Board of Education, noting:

After careful analysis of the four articles cited in support of the overarching and specific claims, we have found that none of these papers provides sufficient evidence for the claims that are attributed to it. We hope that after reviewing the following analysis, as well as considering the seven claims included in the section that are not attributed to any published research, you will remove all of these claims, and perhaps even the entire section entitled “The Benefits of Ethnic Studies” from the final version of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, since its claims are insufficiently supported by empirical research.

You can read the full letter below.

Scholars Concerned About ESMC Claims 1.21.21 by Samantha Mandeles on Scribd

But the crux of the issue, as has been clear to some from the very beginning of the project, is not the ESMC’s individual inaccuracies or omissions. Instead, as AMCHA Initiative director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin says, the curriculum’s foundation in Critical Theory and Critical Ethnic Studies renders the spirit of the project an inherently biased and propagandistic one whose implementation would be harmful to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. Anti-Jewishness and historical distortion, Rossman-Benjamin noted, is woven into the fabric of the entire field.

Rossman-Benjamin, a former lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and scholar in her own right, explains that the discipline itself is illegitimate as an area of academic inquiry. Instead of beginning with a broad question, seeking to collect and interpret data, and then forming conclusions in an effort to answer the question, Critical Ethnic Studies begins with conclusions—which it assumes are not only factually unassailable, but morally correct—and then gathers evidence that support those conclusions.

Indeed, in addition to the field’s foundational paradigm of ethnically determined Oppressor vs. Oppressed, Critical Ethnic Studies often treats concepts such as empiricism and objectivity as products of “whiteness,” meaning that empirical challenges of the ‘evidence’ can conveniently be dismissed as manifestations of white supremacist oppression in and of themselves. In fact, as Rossman-Benjamin says, the discipline as a whole, developed and propelled by politically motivated actors, is ultimately designed to promote political activism against oppression—but only as Critical Ethnic Studies scholars define it. Ominously, she notes that the endpoint of such a discipline is not developing students’ “critical thinking skills” (as the ESMC claims to do), but rather, the endpoint is inspiring social revolution.

Clearly, indoctrinating an entire generation of California’s children poses myriad problems for the future of American society—not least of which is that where California leads, other states often follow. The current draft of the ESMC is now under review by education officials, who plan to unveil the “final” version in March. It remains to be seen whether the state will heed the considerable public resistance to all three proposed drafts, or whether it will succumb to the pressures of the ‘intersectional’ mob.


Samantha Mandeles is Senior Researcher and Outreach Director at the Legal Insurrection Foundation. You can contact her on Twitter at @SRMandeles.


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