Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Tempest in Tucson

Arizona these days has a law on the books banning in public educational institutions courses which "promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Pedagogically, of course, hardly any courses meet the middle requirement, as teachers of, say, African-American history would often love it if more White students took an interest in that subject. I'm also not sure what the last part of that even means, since any course takes as its units groups, such as "American literature."

The real tell is the first clause, that courses are banned which "promote resentment toward a race or class of people." You see, often in history, majorities have oppressed minorities. It continues to happen today, albeit usually in more subtle ways than a century ago. A course that focuses on such a minority will therefore cover that oppression, which might cause them to resent being oppressed. Oh, and don't forget that these minorities tend to be people who were forced into the minority role by the majority as much as anything else. Race and ethnicity are socially constructed. Southern Europeans and Irish did not always count as White, while Arabs usually did.

Today, certain Tea Party types are feeling culturally anxious. They live in a world of certainty, and don't want that certainty rattled by new perspectives from other cultural groups. Their solution then, as seen in the law, is to eliminate the troubling voices:
"As part of the state-mandated termination of its ethnic studies program, the Tucson Unified School District released an initial list of books to be banned from its schools today. According to district spokeperson Cara Rene, the books 'will be cleared from all classrooms, boxed up and sent to the Textbook Depository for storage...'

"Other banned books include 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' by famed Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and 'Occupied America: A History of Chicanos' by Rodolfo Acuña, two books often singled out by Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal, who campaigned in 2010 on the promise to 'stop la raza.' Huppenthal, who once lectured state educators that he based his own school principles for children on corporate management schemes of the Fortune 500, compared Mexican-American studies to Hitler Jugend indoctrination last fall.

"An independent audit of Tucson’s ethnic studies program commissioned by Huppenthal last summer actually praised 'Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,' a 40-year-old textbook now in its seventh edition. According to the audit: 'Occupied America: A History of Chicanos is an unbiased, factual textbook designed to accommodate the growing number of Mexican-American or Chicano History Courses. The auditing team refuted a number of allegations about the book, saying, ‘quotes have been taken out of context.’'"

These banned books even include a staple of the Western literary canon:
"Another notable text removed from Tucson’s classrooms is Shakespeare’s play 'The Tempest.' In a meeting this week, administrators informed Mexican-American studies teachers to stay away from any units where 'race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes,' including the teaching of Shakespeare’s classic in Mexican-American literature courses."

Got that? Whatever you do, don't make the White people look bad by talking about oppression! Why would Shakespeare's The Tempest come up? Most scholars believe the play's setting was inspired by European voyages to the Americas, and the magician Prospero's enslaved servant Caliban was created as an archetype of the Native Americans. That portrayal itself is clearly demeaning, but Shakespeare was not afraid to give Caliban a perspective, and in Act I, Scene ii we see him complain that Prospero has stolen his land and made him but a servant, but also given him knowledge to understand his predicament. Shakespeare, in other words, saw the resentment of the colonized as a perfectly natural outgrowth of the processes of colonialism and the making of subject populations, both the Spanish in Mexico, which gave rise to the Mexican population, and later the Americans in Arizona, after the war of conquest which Abraham Lincoln and other vehemently opposed. And what certain people in Arizona now want to do is try and prevent high school students in Tucson from sharing in Shakespeare's insight.

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