With Mexican American Studies back in the news, the discussion over whether the program helped or hurt its students has been reopened. Were minority students better off for being taught ways Hispanics have gotten a raw deal in this country, or does that just make them angry and discouraged, leaving them worse off than if their history of second class citizenship wasn't emphasized in MAS classrooms?
According to a recent study
, programs like MAS help improve minority students' self esteem and their chances of success in school. The study looked at a group of middle school students in a majority-minority middle school in Arizona—55 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 11 percent Native American. Researchers asked students if they believed America is a place where people who work hard have an equal chance of succeeding—in other words, if they believed the U.S. is a meritocratic society. When they were sixth graders, students who believed they lived in a meritocracy had relatively high self esteem and were less likely to indulge in risky behavior than other students. But by the end of the seventh grade, those students had lower self esteem and increased risky behaviors compared to students who didn't buy into the idea that they lived in a meritocracy.
The cautious conclusion the researchers draw from their results is that "system justification," the belief that social, economic and political systems around them are inherently good, cause minority students to internalize the discrimination directed at them and view their low societal status as their own fault. As one teacher put it,
“[Minority] students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them,” he said, “and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control.”
According to its authors, earlier research came to similar conclusions.
While the sample was relatively small, [Erin Godfrey, lead author of the study] said the findings are informative and mirror prior research. Indeed, previous analyses have found that system-justifying beliefs are associated with lower self-esteem in black adults and lower grade-point averages for Latino college students.
All of this brings us back to Mexican American Studies. The program spotlighted the history of prejudice and oppression directed at Hispanics in the U.S. No question, giving that kind of instruction to Hispanic students can make us advantaged white folks feel uncomfortable. It's nicer to believe we attained our positions in society on our own merits, not because we had a societal leg up on others. Our consciences rest easier if we don't hear a lot of talk about our deep, wide, far-reaching social inequalities. But if the study's conclusions are accurate, easing our consciences by encouraging a sanitized version of American history, sociology and economics in school is detrimental to students who are on the receiving end of the inequity. When minority students understand that obstacles have been put in their path, and in the path of their parents and their parents' parents, the weight of believing "It's all my fault" is lightened. Realizing that the societal playing field is uneven and they're the ones who have to run uphill makes it easier to internalize the feeling that they are in fact "created equal" with others who have greater advantages. That knowledge may lead to the desire to run a little harder, to show themselves and the world, "Yes I can" (possibly with a little "I'll show you, you son of a bitch!" thrown in).
In other words, the very qualities of the MAS classes its skeptics maintain are destructive to students are actually some of the most constructive aspects of the program.