Jonathan Zimmerman: Ethnic Studies End Up Shortchanging Everyone

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author, most recently, of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at]

In the late 1840s, following a brief war with Mexico, the United States acquired the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, along with parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Counting Texas, which was annexed before the war, about a third of the continental United States is former Mexican territory.

Should we celebrate or bemoan this? Was the Mexican War a victory for the "Empire of Liberty," as its advocates maintained, or did America prey on a weaker neighbor to advance its imperial designs?

Those aren't questions you'll hear in most public schools' U.S. history classes, which simply assume American righteousness. But you're also unlikely to hear them in "ethnic studies" classes, which often assume the opposite.

That's the subtext of the latest controversy in Arizona, which has become ground zero in America's continuing struggle to define itself. The combatants in this battle resemble each other much more than either side is willing to admit....

But if Arizona schools really treated students as individuals, they would engage them in the controversies of the state's history - starting with the Mexican War. Contemporary critics of the war included Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, who famously spent a night in jail to protest it. Would [state schools] Superintendent [Tom] Horne be at ease with a classroom debate on whether Lincoln and Thoreau were right?

I think not. If a mostly Hispanic classroom sided with the war's critics, it might violate Arizona's new ethnic studies law. Mexican American kids condemning U.S. imperialism? What could provoke more "resentment toward a race or class" than that?

By the same token, it's hard to imagine ethnic studies classes engaging in real debate along these lines, either. According to reports, some use Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by the respected Mexican American historian Rodolfo Acuna, as their main textbook.

I like Acuna's book, but - like every historical account - it has a distinct perspective on the past. You can get a flavor of that perspective from the title of its chapter on the Mexican War: "Legacy of Hate: The Conquest of Mexico's Northwest." Section headings include "The Invasion of Mexico" and "The Myth of a Nonviolent Nation."

Do the ethnic studies classes in Tucson analyze the book's argument so students can decide if they agree? I doubt it. Like mainstream history classes, they probably present one point of view as the truth....

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