02/08/2012 07:02 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

Arizona's Cultural Genocide & Social Production of "Knowledge"

As wisely and eloquently stated by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, "the pen is mightier than the sword," this adage holds that the written word acts as a powerful tool in the transmission of ideas. Why else would oppressive regimes and other virulent enforcers of the status quo engage in censorship and book burnings throughout the ages?

The institutionalization of a socially conservative norm or standard functions to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as THE truth.

In academic parlance, we refer to the concept of "hegemony" coined by social theorist Antonio Gramsci to describe the ways in which the dominant group successfully disseminate dominant social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as common sense, as "normal," as universal. This dominant-group controlled production of "knowledge" maintains the marginality of other groups, and it denies all people options in understanding multiple perspectives from which to construct meaning.

Joel Spring, in his book Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States, addresses "cultural genocide," which he defines as "the attempt to destroy other cultures" (p. 3) through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and cultural and religious standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of "deculturalization," which Spring describes as "the educational process of destroying a people's culture and replacing it with a new culture" (p. 3).

Currently, Arizona politicians are engaging in the cultural genocide of minoritized communities in their execution of a hegemonic conceptualization and enforcement of "knowledge."

The Arizona legislature in May 2010 passed House Bill 2281, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, targeting public school districts' ethnic studies programs. Then Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, a primary supporter of the bill, asserted that the law was necessary because, in particular, Tucson, Arizona's Mexican American, African American, and Native American studies courses teach students that they are oppressed, encourage resentment toward White people, and promote "ethnic chauvinism" and "ethnic solidarity" instead of treating people as individuals.

Recently, current Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, released a list of books he has banned from classrooms throughout the state, including "The Tempest" by Shakespeare, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (1998), by Bigelow and Peterson,The Latino Condition: A Critical Reader (1998), by Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001), by Delgado and Stefancic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000), by Freire, United States Government: Democracy in Action (2007), by Remy, Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (2006), by Rosales, and Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (1990), by Zinn.

The Schools: An Early History

Throughout the history of this country, in their role as social institutions, schools have reproduced the cultural norms, often with the attendant range of social inequities and dominant group privileges found within the larger society.

In Colonial America, few regions, except for the larger New England towns, mandated by law the building of schools or the provision of childhood instruction. Schools that were constructed and teachers who were hired were done so only because local citizens decided to pool their resources. During this time, classroom lessons were tied directly to Protestant religions and the Protestant Bible, which the early settlers brought with them from England.

School lessons primarily centered on preaching, catechizing, and prayers, which called for freedom from influences of the Devil and attacks from the native populations. In addition, the most frequently used schoolbook was The New England Primer, to teach reading as well as the Protestant catechism. A number of Catholic parishes established parochial or parish schools partly due to the Protestant teachings that pervaded the public school curriculum.

Following the Revolutionary War, leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and others called for state supported and mandated public education, believing that the very survival of the new Republic depended on an educated populous. Jefferson, for example, advocated for a three-year publicly supported education for all White children with advanced education provided to a select few males--not females. As Jefferson wrote, the schools will be "raking a few geniuses from the rubbish." Black people, however, generally were not accorded the right of an education, especially in the southern colonies, which passed laws enacting heavy fines and physical punishment against anyone found educating them.

The first statewide school system was established in Massachusetts in the 1820s largely as a result of the efforts of Horace Mann, the first secretary of education of any state in the United States. While traveling throughout Massachusetts, Mann found an unequal patchwork of local schools dependent on the tax base of each community. He proposed a new structure, which he called "common schools." These schools were to serve all children, of all income levels. He hoped these schools would help to end, or at least reduce, the financial inequities between citizens of the state. Mann and other political and community leaders also supported a homogeneity of opinion and belief. They proposed that the main purpose of public education was develop good character based on religion, which was itself based on the central teachings of the Protestant Bible.

During the eighteenth century, the public schools throughout the U.S. employed extensively the McGuffey Readers. Though children of a number of faiths attended the schools, a Protestant character infused these books. So, both during colonial times and the early years of public education following the Revolutionary War, a Protestant foundation permeated schooling.

An historical example of "cultural genocide" and "deculturalization" can be seen in the case of European American domination over Native American Indians, whom European Americans viewed as "uncivilized," "godless heathens," "barbarians," and "devil worshipers."

European Americans deculturalized indigenous peoples through many means: confiscation of land, forced relocation, undermining of their languages, cultures, and identities, forced conversion to Christianity, and the establishment of Christian day schools and off-reservation boarding schools where they took youth far away from their people.

The U.S. government under President Hayes approved and developed off-reservation Indian boarding schools, the first in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879 run primarily by white Christian teachers, administered by Richard Pratt, a former cavalry commander in the Indian Territories. At the schools, officials stripped Indian children from their cultures: cut short the young men's hair, forced all to wear Western-style clothing, prohibited them from conversing in their native languages and made English compulsory, destroyed all their cultural and spiritual symbols, and imposed Christianity on them. As Pratt related to a Baptist audience: "[We must immerse] Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, [hold] them there until they are thoroughly soaked."

By comparison, I ask how these attitudes and actions are different from the draconian practices enacted by Arizona state officials in 2010 in stripping away primarily the Mexican American Studies programs from Tucson public schools? Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, suspended the highly successful and student empowering program.

Anyone who believes in academic freedom and cultural liberty must find these practices offensive. Students previously enrolled in the Mexican American Studies program achieved a 94 percent high school graduation rate, up significantly from around 50 percent of Latino/a students not enrolled. The program has given students a sense of cultural pride, a passion and joy in the learning process, and a feeling of hope for their futures.

Unfortunately, however, Arizona politicians place social and cultural conformity as THE major considerations. This reflects educational researcher's, Kochman in "Black and White Cultural Styles in Pluralistic Perspective" (1994) contention that dominant society mandates linguistic and cultural assimilation as a requirement for social support: "The nonreciprocal nature of the process of cultural assimilations of minorities does not permit the mainstream American culture to learn about minority cultural traditions nor benefit from their official social incorporation. It also suggests an unwarranted social arrogance: that mainstream American society has already reached a state of perfection and cannot benefit from being exposed to and learning from other cultural traditions" (p. 287).

As Santayana reminds us: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." We now, though, have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past by speaking out against the racism and cultural genocide that surrounds us. Please pledge your support to the "No History is Illegal Project": . Standing together and standing firm, we can reverse the tide of ruthless socialization engulfing our educational system.