EDITORIAL: Ethnic studies benefits all students

The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·3 min read

Mar. 29—Mankato's East and West high schools are moving in the right direction as teachers work ethnic studies classes into their future social studies curriculum.

The rest of Minnesota's public schools should be taking the same steps if they haven't already, and the state's academic standards revisions being undertaken now should include ethnic studies as required material.

Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of the perspectives of historically underrepresented and disenfranchised groups. Course material typically spans from past to present, from politics to social reform.

Learning to understand people in context is key to acceptance and cooperation — important skills we all need in today's interconnected world. A global pandemic blasted our eyes wide open to the realization that we don't operate in isolation from other communities, countries, economies or each other.

A piecemeal approach to educating young people about ethnic studies isn't an evenhanded method of making sure all Minnesota public school students graduate with a good handle on the world around them. Students at an all-white school in a tiny southern Minnesota town as well as students at a large inner-city district should all be taught the material.

Revision of the social studies standards is a regularly scheduled process, but the current outcry to recognize injustices among the minority populations reminds us that education is not static. Old history books and outdated curriculum leave out a lot of voices. Revising the standards doesn't mean ignoring other important parts of history; it means adding to the depth of knowledge and presenting a more comprehensive view of history and culture.

Well-rounded lessons in Minnesota schools, of course, have to include the history and lives of Indigenous people. You shouldn't have to move to the Mankato area to learn about the history of the Dakota people and find out this city is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history where 38 Dakota were hanged in 1862.

Even the name of our state comes from the Minnesota River. Minnesota State University professor Gwen Westerman, author of "Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota," said the direct translation is: "Land where the water is so clear it reflects the sky." It is the version of the Dakota name used in the Treaty of 1851.

To omit or downplay that part of history in a state richly tied to tribes who lived here before white people would be an inexcusable omission. Gov. Tim Walz's administration is right to push the state to spend more on changing how public schools teach Indigenous history and to improve the school experience for students from tribal backgrounds.

Dean Urdahl, a Republican lawmaker from central Minnesota, is a retired social studies teacher who has published historical novels about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He sees room for improvement in how Minnesota schools teach Indigenous history.

"A lot of what you see doesn't get past the cowboys and Indians stage. When I taught, I tried to give, I think, a fuller picture of the culture," Urdahl said in a Star Tribune story. But students, parents, teachers and school leaders would have to be prepared to grapple with a history "that's not all roses for everybody," he said.

We don't need to paint rosy pictures for our students. We need to teach them a more complete view of where we've been, where we need to go so society functions better for more people, and give them the tools to help make that happen.