Ethnic Studies — Arizona whitewashes its history

I don’t write often about individual political and social outrages. There are just too many of them, and they’re already very well covered by news media and the websites of affected interest groups.

In the case of the latest twist on Arizona’s infamous ban on the teaching of Ethnic Studies, I’m making an exception.

After all, I spent 32 years in public school classrooms, not counting the four years I spent on the other side of the desk as a high school student in California.

Arizona House Bill 2281 begins with a “Declaration of Policy” in which “The Legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.”

This policy is implemented by prohibiting “any courses or classes that include any of the following:  (1) promote the overthrow of the United States government, (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people, (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

The specific focus of the bill, according to the State Superintendent of Education, was Tucson’s Ethnic Studies program. Students in Tucson’s public schools are 60% Hispanic, and the district’s program was an important acknowledgement that the history and culture of the majority of Tucson’s students had been largely ignored, many would say suppressed, in favour of the “official” version of American life and Arizona’s history.

The controversy over the bill, which took official effect on December 31, 2010, has reached a new peak with the Tucson school board’s recent publication of its list of newly-banned texts.

The Tucson board’s response to a December 2011 court ruling that the district’s Ethnic Studies curriculum violates the new law didn’t merely direct teachers to refrain from using certain books. The board ordered all of the offending books to be crated up and removed to a central warehouse. Who knows what mischief a renegade teacher or librarian might get up to if the books aren’t secured?

While some of the newly-banned books are relatively obscure, scholarly accounts of Hispanic history and culture, there are several extreme exceptions.

One of the banned books is the colourful and innocuous 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures. Another is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Apparently, even an Elizabethan depiction of an ill-conceived and fruitless revolution is too controversial for Arizona.

I remember well from my own teaching career an attempted school board attack on Shakespeare. One local trustee, who, with great irony, now has a district school named after him, tried to get rid of Macbeth because it “promoted” witchcraft. Apparently, and this is his “reasoning,” the witches succeed in their campaign to corrupt and damn Macbeth, thus letting evil triumph over good, an outcome that was detrimental to the spiritual and moral growth of children.

The gentleman’s motion to ban the play failed, but that didn’t stop the evangelicals in the area from staging periodic “raids” on our school’s library, demanding to be allowed to search through the collection for “sinful books.” Most of the teen novel section would have disappeared, not to mention the entire biology section, if our librarians had ever granted their requests.

But back to the Arizona law. Several parts of the bill’s language I cited above deserve comment.

First, for Arizona’s legislature, in the American state with the most unabashedly anti-Hispanic immigration law in the nation, to pretend to be concerned about teaching students not to “resent or hate other races or classes of people” would be laughable if it weren’t so cynically hypocritical.

And the bill’s ostensible aim, to “treat and value each other as individuals,” is promoted in the face of other state legislation that bans Spanish outside of elective language study courses. Banning the ethnic history of the majority of Tucson’s students from the schools demonstrably doesn’t “value” these pupils as individuals. There’s much more force-feeding of the dominant, establishment culture — English language only, the “liberation” of California and the Southwest from Mexican rule, and the rest — than there is any consideration of the history, culture, or sensibilities of Hispanic students.

But the most striking aspect of the legislation is the way it couples Ethnic Studies with violence and revolution. It seems that Arizona’s legislators were afraid that teaching Hispanics their real history, or fostering their self-esteem by valuing their culture, is a recipe for civic chaos. So, in a bill which, remember, the State Superintendent of Education said was directed specifically at Tucson’s Ethnic Studies program, the first of the banned “learning outcomes” in the legislation is to prohibit studies that “promote the overthrow of the United States government.”

Really? Really? Teaching cultural pride and an awareness of their history to Arizona’s Hispanic students is tantamount to fostering revolution? I think that maybe these state legislators revealed more of their deepest inner fears than they intended. You can’t let Hispanics learn what their history really was like, or else they’ll take up arms and establish a new state of Arizona, conceived in liberty, and all that?

Perhaps these legislators, the same ones who passed Arizona’s English-only law, should actually read The Tempest, and discover one outcome of Prospero’s “benevolent” subjugation of Caliban.

There, they would read, with just a slight but relevant addition:

“You taught me your language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.”

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2 thoughts on “Ethnic Studies — Arizona whitewashes its history

  1. There is a disturbing outbreak of Scottish culture at the moment (Jan25) which ought to be looked at. Fortunately it doesn’t yet appear to be touching the schools.

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