Latin History for Morons: Ethnic Studies, Student Achievement, and Eurocentrism
During spring break, my husband and I went to see John Leguizamo’s latest one-man show “Latin History for Morons” at the Public Theater in New York City. Performing as a slightly disheveled, professorial version of himself, Leguizamo tells the story of his efforts to educate his young son on the importance, contributions, and legacies of Latin@s/x, only to find that his own knowledge is lacking. He attributes his limited knowledge to a Eurocentric education and cultural industry that consistently glorifies whiteness and Euro-American history. This perception that Europe and Anglo histories and cultures are superior to others is a form of ethnocentrism. If we only view the world and others around us through our own cultural lens, then we miss the complexities, contributions, beauty, and struggles of groups that are all around us.
“Latin History for Morons” highlights the very real deficits that exist within our educational systems. According to the U.S. Census, Latin@s/x make up 17% of the U.S. population (28.6% in NYC where the show took place), are the fastest growing minority group, and have a history within the United States dating back to its founding (a point raised consistently within Leguizamo’s show). Yet, Latin@s/x are consistently viewed within dominant culture as ahistorical “newcomers” with no relevant culture or history (for a discussion on how this is related to civic participation and voting, click here and here).
Within public education, Latin@s/x are often overlooked in discussions of American history; the result is that students – regardless of ethnic or racial background – are unaware of the many contributions Latin@s/x have made and continue to make to this country; from art, to literature, to improving worker’s rights, to desegregating education (Mendez v. Westminster), to reinvigorating both national and local economies.
This erasure of multiple histories and knowledge from our collective consciousness has a negative impact on how communities of color view themselves within the United States and contributes to false perceptions that Latin@s/x are a relatively new migratory group to the U.S.
Ethnically and racially relevant coursework that decenters Eurocentric ways of knowing (otherwise known as ethnic studies) helps all students to see themselves in the curriculum, and highlights the complex and multivariate contributions of a variety of populations in the United States.
As a recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education indicates, ethnic studies courses, also, improve the attendance and academic performance of students who are at-risk of dropping out of high school. According to an article in The Atlantic that discusses the report:
The improvements were significant: Attendance jumped by 21 percentage points, grade-point average by 1.4 points, and students in ethnic-studies courses covering discrimination, stereotypes, and social-justice movements earned 23 more credits toward graduation. Overall, the largest gains were found among boys and Hispanic students, and in the subjects of math and science.
The increased gains in student outcomes are also evident in the documentary Precious Knowledge. The film follows the impact of the Mexican American studies program on students in the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona. In the documentary, we witness students learning problem-management strategies, critical thinking and community-building skills, civic engagement, and pride.
With similar results as the above research and as others have highlighted, the teachers’ ability to connect the students’ histories and cultures to their education improved retention and academics, and increased graduation rates. Yet, despite the positive outcomes, local legislators attacked the program, labeled the courses as divisive and anti-American, and passed legislation banning public school courses “designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group.”
These critiques of ethnic studies curriculum highlight the disconnect between legislators and non-white Americans who rarely see themselves represented in the broader U.S. American narrative. In terms of education, these legislators also ignore the ways the non-ethnic studies curriculum is also divisive and alienating in its over-representation of European and Euro-American viewpoints and cultures.
Furthermore, these claims dismiss the positive impact that ethnic studies courses have on white students as well. This includes, increased critical thinking skills, deeper understandings of socio-cultural differences, how to connect with people from various different backgrounds and cultures – a highly needed skill in today’s economy – and ways of thinking about others that exists outside of stereotypes.
So why is ethnic studies so dangerous to these lawmakers? Ethnic studies embraces marginalized people as producers of knowledge, and celebrates different forms of knowledge production. In addition, it challenges how knowledge is produced and defined, and highlights that all knowledge production, including Eurocentric curriculums, are ideologically loaded, with a purpose and goal in mind (there is no such thing as purely objective research or knowledge).
It also challenges the power structure within education, because that power also produces and defines what should be in school curricula (for examples of how this operates see here and here). Because Eurocentric education is normalized in the U.S. and reproduced through grants, law, and socialization, anything that challenges that normalcy is framed as dangerous.