05/17/2010 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Sinking Arizona

For those of you who might not remember, or were too young to see, the brilliant film comedy, Raising Arizona (1987), I chose the title of this column for its coincidental aptness: Instead of the dim-witted antics of the couple in the movie, Arizona has moved on to "State-mandated stupidity."

It is hard to know where to begin in this tragi-comedy of misguided governing, but since I'm basically an educator, let's start with the explanation that Tom Horne, State Superintendant of Education in Arizona, has used to ban ethnic--read "Chicano"--studies:

"Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds. . . .This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism."

If you follow Horne's reasoning, then Black Studies, Jewish Studies, Asian Studies, and other similar programs that are now part of the curricula in many public schools and universities should be banned as well. Admittedly, some of these programs might have political and ideological issues, but the same can be said of the teaching of American and European history, modern art, and sports management; programs that, I would hope, would be spared the censure of the superintendent.

But if Mr. Horne were to be consistent, then the only really American studies that would reflect "fundamental American value" are those of Native Americans (The notion that "we are all individuals" was clearly not in the Superintendent's mind or he would have vociferously opposed the new "identity" law that requires that "individuals" of Latino background prove that they are not members of a sinister stereotype.).

If Mr. Horne wanted to make a case for "reforming" or "examining" Chicano Studies, I suppose I'd have no quarrel with him if, of course, he gave the same scrutiny to other programs in the state and the consequences of standardized testing that despite Arizona's reservations about No Child Left Behind, still continues as educational policy. True educators do not "ban" a course of study because it's controversial. Their first response would be to examine the evidence and see what, if anything, needs to be altered before eliminating a program.

But the most self-destructive action by the state of Arizona was the new immigration law that, despite public officials' denials and obfuscations, legalizes "ethnic profiling" in a way that will cause a great deal of emotional and possibly economic harm to law-abiding American citizens. If its purpose was to discourage illegal immigration, especially of the "criminal element," present law-enforcement procedures should be sufficient. But, as a CNN article reported in response to the enactment of the law ("Crime Stats Test Rationale Behind Arizona Immigration Law," 4/29/10):

According to FBI statistics, violent crimes reported in Arizona dropped by nearly 1,500 reported incidents between 2005 and 2008. Reported property crimes also fell, from about 287,000 reported incidents to 279,000 in the same period. These decreases are accentuated by the fact that Arizona's population grew by 600,000 between 2005 and 2008.

According to the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Institute, proponents of the bill "overlook two salient points: Crime rates have already been falling in Arizona for years despite the presence of unauthorized immigrants, and a century's worth of research has demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born."

Of course, there are problems with drug-smuggling and illegal immigration, but these are matters that should and must be addressed by federal authorities. Crime prevention should not be made into an issue of ethnic profiling.

But, given these facts, there is even more reason why Arizona is guilty of "state-mandated stupidity": the service and hospitality sectors of the economy of states like Arizona that heavily depend on tourism also depend on the low-wage, hard-working labor of illegal immigrants in order to make a profit; this economic reality also includes illegals who work in agriculture. One of the reasons American citizens are reluctant to take such jobs is that the pay is so low they probably wouldn't earn enough money to avoid being homeless. The self-destructive behavior of a state government that intends to criminalize those who are being exploited because they are "illegal," while at the same time depending on their low-wage labor for their own prosperity, reminds me of the joke about the man who tried to cure his headache by banging himself on the head with a hammer until he "felt better."

Eventually, Arizona and the rest of the country will have to come to terms with the fact that key elements of our economy have flourished due to "illegally low" wages. Instead of making the problem worse by criminalizing people who just want a better life, we should give them an opportunity to gain American citizenship. And instead of penalizing them for the privilege by making them pay a fine, we should be giving them reparations for having exploited and humiliated them in the first place.

As far as Superintendent Horne is concerned, I would suggest that he examine the curriculum of any standard text on American history; there he would find the "ethnic studies" of African, British, Scottish, Irish, French, Italian, Eastern European, Asian, and countless other groups that have become Americans: not just as "individuals" who suddenly appeared in this land from outer space, but whose home countries made countless contributions to what I would hope he would consider the United States.