Saving the Future: The Importance of Teaching Ethnic Studies in School

“If we do not learn from the mistakes of history we are doomed to repeat it.”

The KKK chapter of Indiana had major influence in the areas of prohibition, politics, and education. This caused Indianapolis to build a school, Crispus Attucks, for black students that they assumed the students would fail in. Despite being 100 plus years removed from these injustices, we live in a country where there is a lack of trust and divide between our black teenagers and the police. Times like this call for a need to ensure we are educating the future adults of our state to understand those who are different from them.  

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2017 Charter School Conference in Indiana.

There was representation of a variety of charter schools from across the state. As usual, there was a very small representation of minority school leaders. Again, as I scanned the room of 150 people, I counted seven. That's right, seven Black charter school leaders. There were five women and two men. It wasn’t just the poor representation of Blacks at the conference, but a comment made regarding a recently passed bill that sent me over the edge and made me rethink whether or not we were moving in the right direction as a community, city, and state.

During the session on 2017 legislative updates and policy implementations, the presenter Caitlin Bell, who serves as the Vice President of Policy and Government, was highlighting upcoming bills that had recently passed. The bills were broken into two sections, high life bills (which I learned were bills that favored their agenda) and low life bills (bills that didn't favor their agenda). As much as they tried to appear neutral, I quickly picked up they were mostly Republican supporters, but that doesn't matter to me. Needless to say, they posted bills that were labeled “low life” - bills they felt were harmful to the agenda and not beneficial.

On that list was Senate Enrolled Act 337 or the "Ethnic Studies Act". It required high schools in Indiana to offer Ethnic Studies as an elective at least one time a year. When I first saw it my mouth immediately dropped open. I scanned the room to see the reaction of others and no one else seem to be phased. Mind you at this point five of seven African Americans leaders in attendance left during lunch leaving just two of us remaining. I couldn't contain myself in my seat and I almost walked out. Then I thought, “No, stay and speak up.”

I waited about 45 minutes until the question and answer portion of the session. I raised my hand and asked, "I noticed at the beginning you listed SEA 337 under "lowlife," any reason?  I mean with the current social landscape I think it is important for students to be taught in schools and provided with a broader perspective of lifestyles and cultural patterns of ethnic and racial groups represented in the U.S.”

Their response, "Well maybe it was worded incorrectly. We just felt, with all the other mandates on school leaders, to require them to assign this class means they have to find someone to teach the class.  What if only three students are enrolled in the class and you have to hire a teacher to teach a class of three?"

Here lies the issue:

  1. Schools all around the country need to teach Ethnic Studies in school to ensure we aren't raising the next generation of racist individuals.
  2. Indiana, and specifically Indianapolis, may not have some of the outward racial issues plaguing other cities, but we are just one bad shooting away from being the next Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, or Falcon Heights.
  3. Maybe the mandate to teach Ethnic Studies will force some of these schools to re-evaluate their hiring criteria. Maybe in order to have more ethnic conscious students, we need more ethnic conscious adults.

After the conference, I had many people come to me and thank me for having the courage to speak. Courage - I wasn't afraid; I was angry. I was angry at the fact that teaching the future generation of this state the importance of understanding other ethnicities and cultures is perceived as an unnecessary mandate and many of them had the same concern. You applaud me for what appeared to you as courage, but would you still applaud if you knew it was anger? I quickly learned we may not have the racial issues as other cities, but we are still a long way away from where we need to be.



David McGuire

Mr. McGuire is a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, Teach Plus Policy Fellow, and currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana State University for Educational Leadership. Driven by the lack of having an African American male teacher in his classrooms growing up, David helped launched the Educate ME Foundation, which is geared towards increasing the number of African American male teachers in the classroom. A born and raised Hoosier, he is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students in Indianapolis. He describes his educational beliefs as a reformer grounded in the best practices of traditional public schools, where he was mentored by strong leaders. David graduated from Central State University with a degree in English and also holds an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.