The Numbers Won’t Speak For Themselves

An high-profile legal case about Mexican-American studies demonstrates why academics should become publicly engaged in issues in contemporary society, argue Nolan L. Cabrera, Stephen Pitti and Angela Valenzuela.

September 12, 2017
 
 

There is an old adage that scholars should simply “let the numbers speak for themselves.” But numbers have never told their own stories, and “disinterested” academics have never simply reported on phenomena without interpreting the data. The world’s best scientists, social scientists and humanists have long considered how their scholarship fits into, and might even change, contemporary society.  We are proud that our academic field of Mexican American Studies in particular continues to stress a commitment to publicly-engaged scholarship.

That commitment has been on display in places like Arizona for years. A few weeks ago, a more than decade-long fight over Mexican American Studies in Tucson ended when a federal judge ruled that the law used to ban this program was both created and enforced with anti-Mexican American racial animus. This is the most high-profile ethnic studies case in the history of the United States, and we were privileged to serve as the three expert witnesses offered by the plaintiffs in support of Tucson’s Program.  

The first round of evidence came from Nolan Cabrera and co-authors at the University of Arizona, examining the programmatic efficacy of the Mexican American Studies program.  They empirically demonstrated that students who took these courses were more likely to pass their state standardized tests after initial failure and were more likely to graduate from high school than their peers not in the program. This showed that state pressure to disband the program caused unconscionable and unlawful educational harm by removing this promising opportunity for its students -- in particular, Mexican American students.

The second round of evidence came from Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas at Austin, who established ethnic studies curricula as legitimate forms of education grounded in generations of scholarship and practice.  She demonstrated to the court that Tucson’s disbanded Mexican American Studies program had represented a sound approach to K-12 education, that it was not the hodge-podge the state tried to portray, and that the program’s educators were skillful and thoughtful teachers.

Finally, Stephen Pitti of Yale University provided evidence that the history of anti-Mexican American racism in the Southwest shaped 21st century debates about Mexican American Studies. He told the court that Arizona policy makers who attacked the program used racial code words to galvanize support from white Arizonans who feared the state’s “Mexicanization.” Racial animus, he emphasized, played a key role in the elimination of the Mexican American Studies Program.

Our collective testimony identified the contours and nuances of how certain policies of the state of Arizona limited opportunities and racially discriminated against the Mexican American community in Tucson. To reach this end as expert witnesses, we worked hard to share our academic expertise in ways that would be helpful to the court and to put our scholarly training at the service of the judicial process. 

But it was challenging. Testimonies took many hours to prepare.  Each expert report had to be meticulously argued and produced in a short amount of time.  The trial preparation was grueling, and testifying proved both exhausting and nerve-wracking.  In addition, for Cabrera, it involved testifying against the same state that employs him amidst a racially hostile environment. 

We were impressed by the broad public interest in the educational and political issues discussed throughout the trial, and we took heart in knowing that many other Mexican American Studies scholars have worked on past civil rights cases related to education, voting rights, immigration and much more. We are proud to work in an academic field in which generations of scholars have worked to inform -- and at times, even shift -- public policy and discourse.

The numbers never speak for themselves, and we were gratified beyond measure when Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled that “The State of Arizona acted contrary to the Constitution of the United States" by eliminating Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Program. Many in the Tucson community -- educators, students and others -- had already reached a similar conclusion, but we are pleased that our efforts as scholars also played a role in overturning the unconstitutional elimination of this successful educational program.

Such involvement is crucial for academics. Some people mistakenly think that the case in which we involved had ramifications exclusively for K-12 education. But it’s important to understand that there are those who would eliminate ethnic studies programs in colleges and universities as well.  During the move to ban Mexican American Studies in Tucson Unified, John Huppenthal also wanted to use his position as state superintendent of public instruction to eliminate Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.

Earlier this year, Republican state representative Bob Thorpe of Flagstaff tried to outlaw any university offerings that involved social justice, and they would likely have included ethnic studies programs. In other words, this is part of a larger assault on critical multiculturalism, and institutions of higher education are not immune. In fact, they may very well be the next targets. 

In these trying times, it is to our detriment that we as academics often remain cloistered in our ivory towers.  The work that we do has great value to society at large, and it is incumbent upon us to make the case for that value and then to act on it. 

  

Bio

Nolan L. Cabrera is associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. Stephen Pitti is a professor of American studies, history, and ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. Angela Valenzuela is a professor in the educational policy and planning program within the department of educational administration at the University of Texas at Austin; she also holds a courtesy appointment in the cultural studies in education program within the department of curriculum and instruction at the university.

 

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