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C is for Confucianism: Chinese studies make their way into the Californian social studies curriculum

High School student, Michael Martin, explores Chinese studies in the high school curriculum.

By Michael Martin

Richard Rodriguez, noted author and contributing editor to the Los Angeles Time's Sunday "Opinion" section, cites a 50s-era American social studies text in his book, Brown: "The Chinese people are like Americans in many ways. They like to laugh and be happy and play games" (119). In reading this excerpt, one might argue that the inadequate portrayal of China's people and history has, throughout the decades, been one of the American social studies classroom's foremost problems. The facts show that, despite a comprehensive list of standards established by the state's Department of Education in 1998, California is no exception. Why, however, has the American schoolhouse's curriculum neglected one of the modern world's foremost powers, one of history's most remarkable civilizations? To what extent are these problems manifested in modern-day America's history classes?

Answers to these questions can be taken, in part, from the California Department of Education's K through 12 social studies standards. The standards include a detailed description of how Chinese and Asian studies are to be dealt with in California's social studies curriculum. In terms of Chinese history, the list is, for the most part, a comprehensive grouping of Chinese historical facts and an outline of areas of study to be expanded upon.

The list of standards covers everything from the early Shang Dynasty, one of the first documented dynastic eras, to the modern-day People's Republic of China. The document, a framework for education, is breaks up China's history into that of early civilizations, Middle Ages, and modern era. In addition to the historical tenets listed, the standards suggest that classroom discussion of Chinese history should describe the "geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures," of that particular era. According to the standards, California's public school student should graduate with a foundation of knowledge in the tenets of the Confucian Analects and Mao Tse-Tung's Great Leap Forward.

However, Rachelle Hanela, a student at Taft High School, a Southern California public institution, claims that she has yet to experience any such education in Chinese and Asian history. "Throughout my studies in my school," Hanela claimed, "I have not learned about Chinese culture. I have learned about Chinese immigration and about the Vietnam War and the bombing on Hiroshima." When asked if she would like to see Chinese studies in her school curriculum, Hanela said, "I think learning about Chinese culture would be very interesting and would be a good part of the curriculum."

Another Taft student, Chinh Le, like Hanela, claims that her history classes have never gone into Chinese and Asian studies in depth. "Teachers would only mention a sentence or two about Chinese or Asian history. I haven't really learned anything except for that the cause of the Vietnam War was due to the Communists." Le, however, would like to have a foundation in the areas for different reasons. She said, "I would like to learn more about China and Asia, because I want to know more of Asian history and my culture."

High School professors, much like the high school students interviewed, had, for the most part, the same take on the situation. J. Victor Ortiz, a social studies professor at Ulysses S. Grant High School who uses the California standards in educating his students, discussed Chinese and Asian studies in his classroom: "I only follow the text book with most of my classes. Presently, there is a chapter on China since [its] revolution and part of a chapter on China during Imperialism, which I teach. There is usually not much time to get deeper on the subject." While Ortiz believes the presence of Chinese and Asian studies in the California social studies curriculum to be sufficient "for the state's needs," he also said that:

"With so many other things that deserve the same enhancement, Asia does not get the time it needs. It might be a good idea for our school to start an Asian Studies Course."

Another professor, José Antonio Núñez-Cordero, who teaches AP World History, International Relations and Modern World History at Belmont High School using the California standards, spoke to Chinese and Asian studies in his own curriculum. "In a regular high school social studies class (Modern World History)," Núñez-Cordero said, "There is no room for Chinese studies. China is covered while discussing revolutions (1911 and/or 1949) [and] imperialism (Opium War), mentioned in the WWI, discussed because of the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, and sometimes chosen by some teachers as a case study of ‘post-WWII' or ‘after the end of the ‘Cold War.'" In assessing these curricula, Núñez-Cordero said that he does not believe there is sufficient coverage of Chinese studies.

When both Ortiz and Núñez-Cordero were asked if they believe there is more of an emphasis on the Western hemisphere than the East in the California social studies curriculum, they had somewhat divergent opinions on the matter.

Ortiz claimed that there is more of an emphasis on the Western world in the social studies curriculum, and that such an approach is justifiable. "We are a Western culture," Ortiz claimed, "and must focus on our societies first.

Every nation does."

Núñez-Cordero also agreed that an emphasis on the Western world is present in the social studies curriculum, and spoke to the issues inherent in that fact. "That is a discussion with political/ideological overtones avoided by many social studies teacher. Besides, universities produce many more teachers familiar with ‘the Western Heritage' than with the East," he said.

Laura Tolkoff, a student at El Camino Real High School, a Southern California public institution, claimed that Chinese and Asian culture are covered in her social studies courses, "but the classes place more importance on their interactions with Western countries rather than the culture in itself," Tolkoff said, "However, there's a difference between history and culture." When asked, Chinh Le also agreed that her "history classes do focus more on the West than the East."

The deficiencies found in the curriculum standards for Chinese and Asian studies are more a result of the discontinuity within the curriculum than of the manner in which they are taught. Sixth and seventh grade students, according to the standards, are to be taught about China during its Middle Ages and early civilizations. A few years later, in the tenth grade, students return to Chinese history, but it is only in the context of greater overlying issues, such as imperialism and war. Chinese studies in terms of the Chinese-American community, and the Open-Door policy, which involved the late 19th century imperialistic movements of Western powers on China. Wide gaps in the Chinese studies requirements for the Californian social studies curriculum exhibit a great weakness in its continuity. This discontinuity is all the more glaring when juxtaposed with the emphasis on the history and culture of the Western hemisphere, which is explored in depth in each grade.

Nevertheless, the situation is not completely disparaging. According to Kenneth McDonald, an Analyst from the Instructional Resources Unit of the California Department of Education, the situation has improved. Prior to the 1998 revision of the social studies curriculum standards, the framework for Chinese studies was much more general.

According to McDonald, these standards for social studies education, among which were the standards for Chinese and Asian studies in the state curriculum, were nowhere near as thorough as the modern standards. In describing the past frameworks established, McDonald claimed, "These documents [tend] to be much smaller, providing more of an overview/approach to the study of history rather than requiring a specific curriculum. The 1981 History-Social Science Framework was 51 pages in length, for example, compared to 232 pages for the current 2001 edition. McDonald described one of the past frameworks: "The ‘world cultures' segment for grades 9-10 in the 1981 Framework provided a list of ‘suggested cultures or cultural areas suitable for this setting,' which includes China on a list of 14 nations or regions." Relative to those of past generations, the modern-day standards for Chinese studies in the California curriculum have drastically improved.

The actual effectiveness of the revised standards has yet to be seen. As of now, however, Chinese and Asian studies are struggling for a place in the state social studies curriculum. In the mean time, students like Hanela, Le, and Tolkoff wait for substantial changes to be made.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.

Asia Institute