Saturday, May 15, 2010

Eugene Robinson Nails It On Arizona's Ethnic Studies Ban

For anyone outraged at the State of Arizona's recent efforts to ban "ethnic studies" in its schools, this editorial by Eugene Robinson is an absolute must read. I mean, Robinson just eviscerates this mean-spirited effort. Read the whole thing all the way through -- many times. But this little snippet is a gem all by itself:

Arizona's top education official, Tom Horne, fought for the new law as a weapon against a program in Tucson that teaches Mexican American students about their history and culture.

Horne claims the Tucson classes teach "ethnic chauvinism." He has complained that young Mexican Americans are falsely being led to believe that they belong to an oppressed minority. The way to dispel that notion, it seems, is to pass oppressive new legislation aimed squarely at Mexican Americans. That'll teach the kids a lesson, all right: We have power. You don't.
Good thing there's no "ethnic chauvinism" in Horne's postion, right!?!?!?

As someone who teaches in and works for a Latin American Studies program at a Title VI National Resource Center on Latin America, I'd add one other little note to Robinson's critique: Arizona's ban on "ethnic studies" is an assault on intellectual freedom. It's anti-intellectual. It is knowledge censorship as bad as, if not worse, than book banning. There is absolutely nothing inherently treasonous or anti-American or any other gross exaggeration of the pursuit of knowledge in the study of different races or ethnicities. Hell, what's next? Banning Jewish Studies? Even from a conservative/libertarian perspective, one should find this effort absolutely repulsive for its patronizing and freedom-squashing and culturally-homogenizing intent. What? Do they think that students are incapable of thinking for themselves? It's 100% pure, unmitigated nativist fascism.


eric said...

While I think it is important that we guard against intellectual cencorship in the classroom (although I believe such censorship is often more justified in a public high school setting than it would be in a university setting), I also think it is important that we not let guys like this (who is a high school teacher) hide behind the mantle of 'intellectual freedom' in order to gain access to a captive audience of high school students enrolled in the an "ethnic studies" class.

I think these kinds of curriculum and classroom decisions are best left to the local school boards, and I'd support such a ban at our school (which doesn't offer any defined 'ethnic studies' courses anyway). At the state level it seems a little much to me, but I also don't personally know the extent to which 'ethnic studies' classes in Arizona High Schools have become a protected institution for guys like Gochez to preach their poison exclusively to latino students, as the law seems to suggest.

Huck said...

Eric - I've seen this video and it's the only one the right wing circulates as some kind of proof that ethnic studies programs and curriculum are preaching ethnic separatism and violent revolution.

Here's Gochez on FoxNews giving a recent interview explaining his speech from three years ago:

A couple of points here, Eric. First, I have neither seen nor heard any evidence that Gochez teaches in or for an Ethnic Studies program. Second, the speech Gochez gave some three years ago was at UCLA on his own time. Extrapolating his speech there to what he teaches in the classroom is making a leap of epic and dangerous proportions. Even Gochez himself, in the FoxNews interview I link to above, contends that what he teaches in school and what he advocates outside of school are kept apart. So there's that. Third, banning an entire field of study from the academy because someone like Gochez, who happens to be a teacher, exists is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is sacrificing free inquiry and knowledge acquisition on the altar of political ideology. There is nothing inherently objectionable about ethnic studies, and I can guarantee you that every ethnic studies curriculum does not have such ethnic separatist activism as its purpose. Fourth, I'm sure I can dig up any number of Tea Party Patriots who teach in public schools and who show up at rallies advocating equally radical ideas. Should we then assume that these Tea Party Patriots get on their soapboxes in their classrooms and preach their own version of anti-government, states rights secessionism?

Conservatives have so jumped the shark on this that they would violate what I would think their most cherished values are - the freedom to learn and to think and to seek knowledge wherever it may be found - and support what I think is essentially a fascist response: the "ethnic-cleansing" of knowledge.

eric said...

Well, Huck, the Superintendent of Schools for the State Of Arizona has gone on record saying they have testimony from teachers that many of these students are being taught they live in occupied Mexico. I don't live in Arizona and can't claim to know the saturation of this problem in the school system (having classes called 'La Raza' would lead one to believe it is a pronounced problem), but they certainly have a different envirnoment than we do here in Oklahoma or you in Louisiana when it comes to this kind of stuff.

I tend to agree with you that if people like Gochez keep these kinds of views in their private life, it shouldn't disqualify them from teaching. But I think there is some evidence that there is a problem in Arizona with this stuff not being restricted to their private lives. I'd rather it be dealt with by firing the individual teachers, but if there is an institutional problem with "ethnic studies" classes being used to promote these views, then it may require an institutional solution. One of the great things about the way America works is that Arizona can deal with these kinds of problems in a way tailored to the wants and needs of their voting citizens, and the rest of us aren't forced to live there or to abide by their laws (but there I go being a state's rights secessionist again). That's why, for instance, I think Romney-care is fine for Massechusetts but a horrible idea for the entire country. Same thing here. Likewise, if the people of Arizona wanted to pass a law requiring every single public school student to take classes in ethnic studies, I might vocally disagree with it, but would ultimately shrug my shoulders in deference to their freedom to do so (and to your credit, I haven't seen you clamoring for the federal government to become involved and overturn this law... does that make you a state's rights secessionist too, or just a fascist? By the way I feel increasingly personally insulted every time I read your site as of late, which is why I haven't been posting here as much).

Finally, excepting language studies, I actually do kind of like the idea of a sort of 'ethnic cleansing' of knowledge, as taught in public school. I don't mean the entire dissolution of any mention of or teaching about ethnic groups (how could you teach history?), but instead a general promotion of students seeing, interacting with, and respecting eachother as individuals instead of as part of an ethnic community (I can think of very few things that you'd teach kids about identifying eachother as part of an ethnic community that, if applied by white kids or Republicans, wouldn't be considered abject racism). Besides, it is increasingly difficult to tell much about a person by their racial heritage.

For instance, I'm happy to encourage my daugther to embrace and participate in the cultural heritage afforded her by her Muscogee ancestry, many aspects of which I find fascinating and beautiful (except for the food... blech). But I don't expect the school to instruct her in this stuff, because to do so would open a cultural rift between varying ethnicities that would do more harm than good (why teach a Creek class but not a Comanche class? What about the kids with strong Irish or German heritage? Whose cultural aspirations get catered to and who decides?) My daughter learns about the cultural traditions of her hispanic and Asian friends by being friends with them, and they learn about hers by being friends with her. Mostly though, they are all learning to be part of a greater culture that allows them to be individually vested in their own ethnic makeup without either deferring to it or discriminating against it, but once you add classes in school that divy them up into social groups based on their ethnicity, you loose this greater cohesion.

Huck said...

Eric - First, apologies if my postings have been personally offensive. I respect your intelligence and value your opinions, so I'm really regretful that my comments and tone have pushed you from being more engaged here. Upon reflection, I can see how you might feel the way you do. I guess my only rejoinder (and this is by no means an excuse, just an explanation) is to say that my comments come also out of a sense of being personally insulted by what Arizona has started through its attacks not only on my personal friends and colleagues, but also my own profession. So, I'll do better to try to be more circumspect in how I say things. I have some more specific substantive reactions to make to your thoughts above, but I'm out the door now. I'll respond to them later. Thanks for your candor, Eric.

Huck said...

And it's not just Arizona, Eric, that has me in a tizzy these days. It's also what's going on locally here in Louisiana regarding immigration and immigrants that has me worked up recently, too.

Huck said...

Eric - Back to the subject. Have you seen any documentary evidence produced by the Arizona Superintendent of Schools that would verify his claims? Surely, he can produce a curriculum, a syllabus, a homework assignment, a videotaped or audiotaped lecture or performance, an assigned reading or textbook, or something concrete to back up his claims. In fact, I find it quite telling that he hasn't. Furhermore, I'd like to know whether this Superintendent of Schools is a political appointee, what his credentials are, and to whom he reports. I teach in what some would call an "ethnic studies" program and I am very familiar with what our curriculum is and what many other "ethnic" studies programs and curricula entail. There is not a single program or course that I am aware of, at the college or the secondary education level, that teaches the kinds of radical ethnic separatism and calls for violent ethnic revolution. I just would like to see some proof of these charges. And I imagine that this proof isn't hard to produce. So what does the fact that evidence hasn't been produced tell us? Is the conservative/libertarian default then to ban such programs on the basis of such unsubstantiated and inflammatory claims?

Regardless, the bigger question you raise is worthy of consideration beyond the specifics of the Arizona legislation: should "ethnic studies" even be taught? Let me start by giving an answer grounded in the principles of freedom: the more knowledge categories we produce and the more diverse approaches to understanding the world we live in and the peoples who populate it, the better we are. Ethnicities exist. Associations through ethnic identity are a part of our social reality. They always have been since and they always will be. To try to understand them on their own terms, much like we try to understand the history of Western civilization or Eastern civilization on its own terms, offers a richer understanding of our world. Expose students to many ways of understanding the realities we experience in our daily lives and trust students to uncover the truths behind them. The greater choices we have in the ways we organize and consume knowlege the richer and freer we are, much like the greater choices we have in organizing and consuming any other product enriches our lives and enhances our freedom. That's one way to defend ethnic studies.

Huck said...

Another is to point out that there is no "ethnic" neutrality in our world. And when we try to remove this from the realm of public education, we are necessarily left with a version of culture and identity in schools that reflects knowledge as explained and understood through the prism of whichever world view is dominant. I am sure you and I could acknowledge any number of examples of this that either distort or provide incomplete knowledge of cultures and ethnic groups that are not consistent with the dominant ethnic/cultural narrative. For instance, what was the impression of Native Americans in the curriculum of elementary schools when you and I were were kids? Ethnic studies programs offer an alternative vision of such narratives. Why shouldn't kids of all ethnicities have access to these different narratives in their quest for knowledge, truth, and understanding -- about the world they live in and about themselves? I'll tell you one thing that I believe to be true: it is the very existence of ethnic studies that has made it possible for discovering and learning about the beauty and fascination of Muscogee life and culture. How do you think this knowledge gets preserved and disseminated? Largely through the scholarship and study and research produced by and through ethnic studies programs. There is a direct correlation between the flourishing of cultural knowledge as it relates to the multi-ethnic tapestry that enriches our daily lives and the emergence and strength of ethnic studies programs in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions. For isn't the old saying true: that if you don't learn about your people's (and by this I mean ethnic group's) history, culture, language, and traditions, they will be forgotten over time. And how can we and our children then even learn from one another individually if we have forgotten who we are?

I don't agree that the costs of teaching about different ethnicities in school, in terms of potentially dividing people into groups, is greater than the benefits. I happen to think that learning about the richness of black history, culture, and tradition in schools has made students less prone to absorb a monochromatic stereotype of the ethnic other. Remember that black, white, latino, asian, and native american people have lived with and around one another in this country for hundreds of years, and yet we failed to really learn the truth about the richness of our different ethnicities for a long time. So why are we now able to be open to learning from one another and respecting the richness of our different ethnicities when we didn't before? Because we had people who really knew the richness of our different ethnicities and started teaching about them.

eric said...

" Have you seen any documentary evidence produced by the Arizona Superintendent of Schools that would verify his claims?"

I have not, but I also haven't spent any time looking, and I don't feel that he is accountable to me for producing such proof, but only to the people of Arizona, where I'm sure this isn't a new issue. If it was the Oklahoma Superintendent trying to pass this law, I'd be a lot more informed.

It's also worth noting huck, that in spite of all the press, this bill does not appear to ban ethnic studies courses, in fact the Tuscon School District officials (the district the bill was mostly aimed at) have said they believe their courses will pass muster under the new teaching regulations, which basically say that such a class must be open to all students and that the curriculum cannnot promote ethnic solidarity.

As to the larger question about whether ethnic studies should be taught in public school in the first place, let me address a few of your comments:

"the more knowledge categories we produce and the more diverse approaches to understanding the world we live in and the peoples who populate it, the better we are."

In the broader context of cradle-to-grave education, I agreee. But in the context of what we should focus on teaching at the K-12 level, I disagree. At this stage, I think it is better to focus on a deep understanding of core subjects, especially hard sciences, while also overlaying this teaching with courses in the Humanities that is broad and focuses on teaching a common cultural literacy. Without such a common cultural literacy, how can we expect these kids to properly understand and interact with eachother in adulthood? As they graduate high school and go out into the world with a common set of problem solving and analytical skills, that is the time for them to engage in self-determination of their further educational goals, which might include pursuing a better fluency in the culture of the lands of their ancestors, or even setting about trying to insert a more ethnic flavor to the current common cultural landscape.

eric said...

"there is no "ethnic" neutrality in our world. And when we try to remove this from the realm of public education, we are necessarily left with a version of culture and identity in schools that reflects knowledge as explained and understood through the prism of whichever world view is dominant."

Correct, but "dominant" does not equate to "static". As latinos become more populous and engaged in American culture, they will inevitably and organicallly effect that culture. An example: most of the white kids of my generation in my neck of the woods made it all the way through high school without ever hearing the word "quinceanera". But our daughters knew about this tradition before they were out of Kindergarten, and at the age of 8they have spent hours with their hispanic friends making plans and learning dances for that big event, and tried to convince their daddies why they need to have one even though it isn't part of their ethnic culture. This wasn't accomplished by an 'ethnic studies' course, but by hispanic immersion into American culture. I would lay money down that within the next few generations we'll start to see a type of Quince celebration for non-hispanic girls, with the end result being that this right-of-passage is adopted into American culture in a way that is not entirely hispanic, but heavily influenced by that tradition. (Likewise, it has always been fascinating to me just how much African-American culture from the Deep South overlaps with Native American culture... 'Soul Food' is often just 'Indian Food' without the fry bread, and if you go through the Uncle Remus stories you will find that almost every one of Bre'r Rabbit's adventures have a counterpart in Creek or Choctaw folk tales).

" is the very existence of ethnic studies that has made it possible for discovering and learning about the beauty and fascination of Muscogee life and culture. How do you think this knowledge gets preserved and disseminated?"

Agreed, and I am not at all opposed to the academic study of various ethnic cultures, only to it's introduction as a competing narrative to American culture as taught in public schools. Here's another example of what I'm trying to get at: My wife's grandmother teaches Creek Langauge classes at the University of Oklahoma, and has long had the dream of opening a Creek school within the boundaries of the Muscogee Nation, where all the classes are taught in Creek and history is taught from a Creek perspective. But she understands that by necessity, this would have to be a private school, because it would be teaching a curriculum counter to what is acceptable in an educational setting funded by taxpayer dollars. Likewise, many Christians who object to the cultural curriculum of public schools choose to homeschool their children. In America, you should absolutely have the right to hold your family seperate from the greater culture, for just about whatever reasons you want... but if you step very far outside the cultural norm, you're on your own when it comes to education, and that is a sentiment I agree with (for the reasons listed above).

eric said...

"I happen to think that learning about the richness of black history, culture, and tradition in schools has made students less prone to absorb a monochromatic stereotype of the ethnic other."

And again I would agree that a broad cultural literacy demands that children be taught a cursory knowledge of different cultures as part of their K-12 education, but entire semester or year-long courses (or multi-year programs) of study centered around teaching from a cultural perspective at odds with what is being taught to kids from other ethnic backgrounds... that is something else entirely. And besides, kids will ultimately get a much better knowledge and understanding simply from knowing and living around kids from other ethnic cultures than they ever will from a classroom.

"So why are we now able to be open to learning from one another and respecting the richness of our different ethnicities when we didn't before?"

Americans have been engaged in academic cultural studies since before the Mayflower arrived. It is nothing new. What has changed is that white people started observing the same rights for non-whites that they used to reserve only for themselves.

Huck said...

Good comments, Eric. I guess I just don't see the threat of ethnic studies courses in the way that this ban in Arizona has painted them. I will say that I agree that courses that are open only to one particular ethnicity or that promote ethnic separatism or advocate violent revolution have no place in an academic curriculum. But there is not a single ethnic studies course that I know of that meets this threshhold. And, in fact, if the Tucson School District contends that its ethnic studies courses will pass muster, that leads me to question the rationale of the legislation in the first place. If the law is intended to ban a curricular bogeyman, which doesn't exist, then its promulgation is rooted in a kind of cynicism not about the content of the curriculum, but about the very value of ethnic studies overall. It panders to and inflames outrage among a particular anti-"ethnic" constituency, and also riles up "ethnics" who feel targeted, by pointing an accusatory finger at something that apparently may not even exist. That's worrisome, don't you think?