Following more than a year of biased attacks and increased discrimination against Asian American individuals, groups on the state and national level are continuing to step up and look for new ways to end the violence while increasing inclusion, representation and awareness for the AAPI community. The latest effort? Illinois will become the first state in the nation to mandate an official program teaching Asian American history in schools.
Grace Hauck of USA Today reported that on Friday, July 9, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker “signed a law requiring public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history — a move education experts said is the first of its kind nationwide.”
According to Hauck, Illinois’ new Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act mandates “a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian American history, including the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest, as well as the contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward.”
The program is currently set to begin at the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
In an interview with Hauck, Sohyun An, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said, “no state has ever done this. It is a watershed moment in history in terms of teaching Asian American history in K-12 schools.”
Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American and co-sponsor of the bill, issued a statement celebrating the TEAACH Act’s passage, saying the bill is designed to help “create a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of American history for all students in Illinois and helps fight anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.”
She also added that “for the 100,000 Asian American K-12 students in Illinois, it ensures they see themselves accurately represented. Asian American history is American history.”
During her speech, Gong-Gershowitz explained that because Asian American history is taught so rarely in American schools, it wasn’t until she went to law school that she learned about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act or the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. Both of these dark chapters in American history had a major impact on immigration policies within the United States for decades.
“The TEAACH Act will ensure that the next generation of Asian American students won’t need to travel across the county or attend law school to learn something about their heritage,” she said.
In an interview with USA Today, Stewart Kwoh, co-founder of the Asian American Education Project, described the Illinois bill as a “pace-setting legislative measure,” noting that nearly a dozen U.S. states are also currently considering similar initiatives.
“There’s a national movement to pass some kind of ethnic studies,” Kwoh said while also underscoring the struggle underway to determine how these programs will be designed. Kwoh said some states prefer the idea of a “traditional ethnic studies program” such as a semester-long course on Asian American and Pacific Islander history. Other states appear to prefer integrating Asian American history into American history courses as a whole.
Ultimately, Kwoh said it may not matter which option the states and schools go with — as long as the history gets taught in some form.