Dean Dad’s Monday blog post, titled “Raising Arizona,” deals with two bills currently being debated in the Arizona legislature that could have chilling effects on higher education. The state is already dealing with at least one issue regarding K-12 education that those of us in higher ed would also do well to pay attention to.
Arizona House Bill 2281, passed in May 2010, banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona public schools. As a result, a highly effective Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District has been shut down, and the books that were an essential part of its curriculum boxed up and removed from school shelves.
Why should we in higher ed care about this issue? First, because today’s K-12 students are tomorrow’s college students. What they learn in high school and earlier is what they bring with them to college. I’d be delighted to have students who’ve already encountered books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Critical Race Theory, but apparently if they come from TUSD that will no longer be the case.
Second, we should care because the increasing intrusion of legislators into curriculum development is not stopping at the high school door, as Dean Dad’s post makes clear. For years one way of controlling curricula was with the language of “accountability,” which too often is used to micromanage educators into only teaching what can be measured and assessed. In the TUSD, however, the Mexican American studies program had recently been audited by an independent review board which found it in compliance with state law—reports suggest that it was also found to be effective in retaining students and improving their academic performance. But the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, disagreed, and the program has been dismantled despite these findings.
I'm all for accountability, properly defined, and I don’t think it’s the place of public or private instruction to “promote resentment of a race or class of people.” But to claim that this is the goal of ethnic studies programs of any kind is to have missed the last thirty-plus years on the frontlines of education. For all my issues with identity politics—which I won’t go into here—I still see ethnic studies programs, like Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, American Studies, and other interdisciplinary programs, as the home of some of the most innovative work being done in the academy and the classroom today. And it makes me very nervous when public servants can simply reject recommendations of independent boards they commission, when they don’t like their findings. And I’m made even more nervous when I hear that teachers are not only being told what, but how, to teach.
Children’s lit scholars have been following the Tucson story for months, reporting on exactly which books were boxed up and removed. Some early reports claimed that The Tempest was now off limits, but the follow up reporting suggests that, actually, it can be taught, just not in a way that involves the discussion of race or oppression, which suggests that perhaps Caliban is entirely off limits. Yet any teacher who really knows his or her students knows that sometimes the best way in to something difficult and seemingly foreign—as any Shakespeare play is to any modern classroom—is to try to make connections to the students’ own lives. And a particularly fruitful vein of Shakespeare scholarship has certainly been that which focuses on race and oppression and their many-layered interactions in his plays. Depriving students of that discussion is not only anti-intellectual, it may have precisely the opposite effect that the superintendent presumably wants, which is to acquaint students in Tucson with “mainstream” or canonical texts.
I do understand that public K-12 has accountability issues that we in private higher ed so far do not. But we are mistaken, I believe, if we allow that sense of security to blind us to the real issues here: a battle is being waged over education in America today, and some of the things I most believe in—academic freedom, critical thought, and engaged pedagogy, to name just three—are already casualties.
(For more on the controversy over the closing of the Mexican American Studies program in the TUSD, see Debbie Reese’s indispensable blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. She has links to much of the relevant coverage. For this piece I also relied on reporting and editorials in Salon.com and the New York Times, in addition to those writings linked above.)