Why students need ethnic studies

Ron Espiritu at TEDxAmherstCollege

Ron Espiritu at TEDxAmherstCollege (Photo: TEDxAmherstCollege)

Ron Espiritu grew up learning the history of people who didn’t look like him, as part of an educational curriculum that glossed over the stories of those who did. Growing up in Texas as part of a Mexican-American family, he experienced a gaping hole in his education — directly related to his heritage. “I never read a book by a Latino author or an African-American author,” he says in a talk at TEDxAmherstCollege. “I studied Mexican-American history on May 22nd, a day before the school year ended.”

But it wasn’t until he went away to college that Espiritu noticed this gap. “I took my first Black studies course [and] I realized that there was an entire academic discipline that I had been cut off from,” he says. “And as I learned about the struggles of African-Americans and [people of] other ethnicities and the Black liberation struggle, I became inspired to figure out who I was as a Chicano male from South Texas. I became hungry for knowledge. I became inspired and once I found myself placed on the historical timeline, I became an intellectual.”

This is why Espiritu teaches ethnic studies — classes that examine the experiences of a wide range of people groups, not passing by those often ignored by conventional studies. In his talk, Espiritu asks why most students in America have to wait until college to be exposed to such important information. “Shouldn’t [this] be available for our young people in high schools and elementary schools across the nation?” he asks.

Ethnic studies offers students an opportunity “to form their intellectual identity,” Espiritu says, and to “use the knowledge that they learned about themselves and their communities [to] go back and solve problems in their community,” yet the small number of programs created in American high schools have often been met with resistance and harsh criticism.

Espiritu uses Arizona as an example: In 1998, the public school district of Tuscon, Arizona started a Mexican-American studies (MAS) program, and despite research finding that participation in the program was linked to better performance on state standardized test and higher graduation rates, the program has been banned by law since 2010.

“Ninety-three percent of the students in the [MAS program] were graduating from high school,” Espiritu says, “and 85% were getting accepted to college … students in the [MAS program] were outperforming their peers in reading, writing and math [and] they didn’t even teach math.”

While closely following the Arizona program, Espiritu worked to build an ethnic studies program in his area, South Los Angeles, and he’s still developing the program today. “For the past nine years,” he says, “I’ve been teaching ethnic studies and African-American studies to high school students in South Los Angeles. And what I found working with my young people is that ethnic studies is empowering, is liberating, is transformative for young people.”

Watch Espiritu’s talk to learn more:


Insights from the TEDx office — Why we liked this talk:

The speaker is an activator and expert in his field who uses research on and experience within his field to deliver a passionate, moving talk on an issue that affects people across his country and beyond. He presents a narrative built on his own experience but tied to examples taken from throughout the country.

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