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Educating for Democracy: Big Brother Is Watching in Arizona

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A recent article in Salon magazine described the paranoid behavior of the educational establishment in Arizona in banning ethnic studies curricula in public high schools throughout the state. In "Who's Afraid of the Tempest?" by Jeff Biggers, the author described the effects of the decision of the Tucson board of education in enforcing the banning of such works as Shakespeare's The Tempest and texts that attempt to give a more comprehensive picture of American history than that of the status quo such as "Rethinking Columbus":

"By ordering teachers to remove 'Rethinking Columbus,' the Tucson school district has shown tremendous disrespect for teachers and students," said the book's editor Bill Bigelow.

"This is a book that has sold over 300,000 copies and is used in school districts from Anchorage to Atlanta, and from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. It offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students think about the perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum."

The treatment of the ethnic studies curriculum, as described by a teacher in Tucson reminds me of the way in which totalitarian despots deal with controversial subjects: ban them from public schools :

"After meeting with our site administrators on Wednesday afternoon, we have been told that our entire curriculum and pedagogy must end immediately. Our students were mortified to hear the news and asked many amazing questions which we have few answers for except that the entire climate and content of our classes must drastically change.

"In sum, we have been told that we cannot teach any race, ethnic or oppression themed lessons or units. However, there has been no specific guidance and since our pedagogy is also deemed 'illegal' then we are not sure HOW to teach either. I asked if I could start teaching Shakespeare's The Tempest and was told no, due to the themes that are present and the likelihood of avoiding discussions of colonization, enslavement, and racism were remote.

"Adding more uneasiness and first amendment chill to our lives, we are still unclear if we will be found out of compliance with the law if our students discuss themes of race, ethnicity or oppression. . . . Lastly, we are to be frequently monitored, student work is to be collected and books were seized from our classrooms on Friday."

As a teacher of African-American literature in the 1960s and Jewish-American literature in the 1970s I can attest to the value of ethnic studies in opening the eyes of students to cultures and issues to which they had little if any exposure in what is often a blandly homogenized culture. And I find it especially ironic that Arizona, which is thoroughly infused with Spanish history, music, cuisine, and most significantly, the name of the state itself which is a Spanish derivation of an Aztec word for "silver-bearing," would consider it unacceptable to allow students to learn about the history and culture of what is now a majority "minority" public school population.

The argument that Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne has presented for withholding school funds from the Tucson school district until they banned such studies is that: "It is fundamentally wrong to divide students up according to their racial group, and teach them separately."

That Horne has instituted one of the most discriminatory immigration laws predominantly affecting Latinos and "separating" them from the rest of the population is one of the many ironies in a state that has consistently shot itself in the foot with its paranoid views on the influence of "foreign" elements. That Arizona and other states have suffered economically from these laws has been amply documented. It was, in fact, the business community in Arizona that provided one of the loudest voices in opposing these laws.

I will concede that learning about one's own ethnic history can be unsettling to young learners and there may be some teachers who have a social agenda that might not conform to the status quo. But as an educator, I've always found that examining the status quo was one of the most effective ways students can get the best education: by questioning things as they are. That officials in Arizona believe that by closing down these programs and thus insulting those who have enrolled in them they will not increase a sense of oppression by Latinos and other ethnic groups is as illusory as the words on a sign a colleague of mine hung in his office many years ago: "The flogging will stop when morale improves." And if The Tempest is banned from the classroom as being "too controversial," I wonder when the Bill of Rights will be banned as well.