Identity Politics Beyond Reason

The headline in the East Bay Express a few weeks back probably didn’t surprise people in California, bracing as they have been for funding shortfalls in government services, including education: “Berkeley High May Cut Out Science Labs”. The first few words of the story delivered the distressing news that the School Governance Council had decided “to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them.”
The science labs under review take place before and after school, allowing science teachers in regular periods to devote more time to academic instruction. All students in science classes have to take one of the labs, while AP students take two of them. The results have been impressive. According to this Los Angeles Times story, “In the last school year, 82% of Berkeley’s AP chemistry students passed the rigorous exam, which gives college credit for high school work. The national passing rate is 55.2%. The school’s AP biology and physics students are even more successful.”
Another Golden State fiscal casualty? Not this time. If people read on, they learned the actual reason for the decision, for the Council didn’t plan to kill science labs because of budget problems. They did so because not enough black and Latino students were enrolled in them. Because of a wide achievement gap, a parent representative on the Council explained, “the science labs were largely classes for white students.” As a result, the members of the Council, a body made up of parents, teachers, and students charged with redesigning the very “structure” of the school, voted nearly unanimously to shut down the labs and redirect resources to “struggling students.” The labs are, indeed, open to those low-performing students, but according to this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, they “don’t always attend the extra labs—and ultimately fail the class.” (Curiously, the Chronicle story doesn’ mention a word about the racial achievement gap, while the LA Times highlights the racial side of the story.)


In fact, the Express reports, the “classes-for-whites” allegation is overstated. Mardi Sicular-Mertens, a science teacher with 24 years experience at Berkeley High counts 12 black males in AP classes, and her environmental sciences classes are 17.5 percent African-American and 13.9 percent Latino.
Apparently, that’s not enough. A teacher in the Communication Arts and Sciences program at the school stated explicitly in the Times, “A significantly lower percentage of students of color are enrolled in science classes with labs. A public school like Berkeley High has an equal obligation to students who have struggled. We shouldn’t be continuing to allocate resources to students who have had them all along.” The Council has sent the proposal to the Berkeley School Board. If the plan goes through, then the $400,000 that the 65 lab sections cost will be shifted to basic skills such as “note-taking,” explains Berkeley superintendent William Huyett in the Times piece.
Without those college-prep labs, will Berkeley High graduates be fairly-equipped to compete with others at the college level in organic chemistry? Likely not, but Berkeley High students can make up for the science deficits with other offerings at the school such as:
– Introduction to Community Service Professions
– Eco-Literacy and Social Justice Seminar
– Politics and Power (first sentence: “Students largely run this course”)
– Popular Culture in 20th-Century America (“This course examines ‘texts’ as diverse as mural paintings, street theater, rap music, women’s art, immigrant stories, and MTV to analyze their role in shaping American society”)
– African American Economics
– The Literature of Diversity
In the Freshman Seminar in the Communication Arts and Sciences program, “The class reads literature that proposes alternate points of view towards the question of our society and what is fair.” In the program’s freshman history course, “Students begin the year by examining their own personal identity and heritage.” The African-American Studies program declares, “We are proud of our program outcome. Our students have a greater sense of self-confidence and awareness of history.” In the School for Social Justice and Ecology, students can travel “to countries like Cuba, Mexico, and Vietnam.”
It all appears in the School’s catalog.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

One thought on “Identity Politics Beyond Reason”

  1. Scholastic striving is “acting white”. Here we have whites acting white, so why not cut it?
    Maybe we could cut out sports programs like basketball and swimming for the same reasons.
    Why not? Tucson schools have a dual system for disciplinary procedures for minorities and whites. http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/viewpoints/articles/2009/09/19/20090919maceachern0920.html
    If you don’t tell me how racist is this country, I won’t tell you how it is racist.

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