"Girls with Barbies, East Harlem" by 1970 Camilo J. Vergara. Writer Laura Paull never ventured into Harlem as a kid, until she enrolled in an ethnic studies course that drew lots of Black students. (Photo/Library of Congress-Camilo J. Vergara)
"Girls with Barbies, East Harlem" by 1970 Camilo J. Vergara. Writer Laura Paull never ventured into Harlem as a kid, until she enrolled in an ethnic studies course that drew lots of Black students. (Photo/Library of Congress-Camilo J. Vergara)

50 years ago, a high school ethnic studies course changed my life

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The first semester of my senior year in high school was all about the Native Americans.

Fitting, as the school was located in Manhattan, which the early Dutch colonists purchased from Indigenous tribal leaders for the equivalent of a thousand dollars. We’d learned that in fourth grade, but that was all we knew about these Indigenous people.

The social studies unit formed part of a yearlong elective course called “Minorities in American Life,” which was designed by our forward-thinking teachers with input from the students. It was 1969, and the civil rights and anti-war movements pressed us to question every shibboleth of American society. The Native American unit was followed by an equally in-depth introduction to Black history. In the second semester, we explored the American immigrant experience specific to New York: Latinos, Jews, Italians, Poles. It was an attempt to represent a more inclusive history of Americans than had been taught previously.

I am recalling the class after so many decades because of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum approved March 18 by the California State Board of Education. While our state claims to be the first in the nation to offer such guidance to educators, the inclusion of minority groups in high school social studies is not new, although clearly it has been neither sufficient nor universal. And I applaud California’s effort, imperfect and incomplete though it may be. Because being exposed at a young age to the real history of American ethnic groups, other than my own, did more than make me realize that there was more than one narrative about America.

It changed my life.

Hunter College High School was a New York City public magnet school, drawing students from the farthest reaches of the five boroughs. We endured long rides on buses and subways because it had high academic standards — a college prep school for the working class.

What it also did was take us out of our neighborhoods, giving us a view of the wider world.

The Bronx neighborhood from which I ventured out was a predominantly Jewish one, populated by first- and second-generation immigrants on the postwar path to achieving the American dream. Aside from differences in degree of religiosity, it was a pretty homogenous place. One heard only two languages: English and Yiddish. My apartment building was located on a street corner. Turn right into the Jewish world. Turn left into the Irish. Never did the two worlds mix.

I rode the train through Harlem, but never got off there. Until I enrolled in that class.

It was an experiment, prompted by student demands to have a voice in what we studied. We had no textbooks and were hampered by no agendas. We read real books: “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” And, in the case of the Native American unit, it offered in-depth study of the multitudinous tribes of Indigenous peoples that populated this country — as differentiated, social and political entities. I don’t think we learned about the California Miwok and Ohlone peoples. But I remember thinking that I would not have minded being a Mohican.

Prompted by these memories, I recently tracked down Irv Steinfink, who taught the class in the second year and through the 1970s. He came to teaching from a decade of activism.

RELATED: Ethnic studies — a meaningful victory in a complicated fight

He recalled that the elective drew large enrollment, with a high ratio of Black students.

“Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. There was tension in the class, a high level of excitement. For me it was a thrill to be there, though I regret that they didn’t find a person of color to teach it,” he said.

The curriculum was largely improvised. “Trial and error,” he said. “I used primary sources and arranged as many field trips as we were allowed.”

Those field trips were as important as the books we read. Among other places, he took students to Harlem, as had my teacher the previous year. And when it was time for us to produce research papers, we did not hesitate to go back.

“My strongest memory is of going to the Schomburg Center to research Marcus Garvey,” recalled my classmate Marcia Settel, now a retired administrative law judge living in Pacifica. “It was the first time I had gone to Harlem, and it was fascinating to discover the special library and the history and culture it contained.”

It had the same impact on me. Day after day in my senior year, I took the subway to peruse the collection that helped me write my paper on the Black sociologist, civil rights activist and author W.E.B. DuBois. Do I remember what I wrote? Of course not; it was the exposure that mattered. The wandering in other neighborhoods, among people other than my own.

What it did was to chip away at whatever edifice of neighborhood bias and ethnic identification might have enclosed me. It stimulated my growth toward becoming a citizen of the world, and fed a hunger for travel. It reduced that very human tendency to fear what is different, which is the seed of prejudice.

There are vast differences between 1970 and 2021. As tumultuous as those earlier times were, American society was not as hair-trigger polarized as it is today. For example, it was possible then to study Jews as American immigrants, without directly referencing the Israel-Palestine issue.

No more.

But when you delve into these complexities — as should be the goal of any educational journey — you realize that there is no safety in holding on to a simplistic view of the world.

As Mr. Steinfink told me, “The course was relevant then and would be just as relevant now.”

Ethnic studies will likely be required soon in California (a bill is under consideration). The just-approved state curriculum is one model schools might use. Perfect or imperfect, today’s students will be better off for any effort to look outside their neighborhoods, to expand their immediate circles of influence in the formation of their ideas.

If they gain nothing more than a dose of respect and a place inside themselves for compassion, those are two qualities that could make a world of difference in the conduct of civil society today.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.