Class Dismissed

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Hot Topics Issue: September 2012
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As the constitutionality of Arizona’s ethnic studies classes law is debated in court, the question still simmers: How can schools teach American history without marginalizing – or militarizing – some groups of students?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit No. 1: the ideal.
The Other Me, by Luis Valdez

In Lak’ech
Tu eres mi otro yo
You are my other me
Si te hago daño a ti
If I do harm to you
Me hago daño a mi
I do harm to myself
Si te amo y te respeto
If I love and respect you
Me amo y me respeto yo
I love and respect myself

Thus began each of Curtis Acosta’s Latino Literature classes at Tucson High Magnet School – a culturally-uniting student-teacher chant percussed with the “unity clap” popularized by Cesar Chavez during the farm worker struggle. “It was a daily reminder of how we should embrace the world,” Acosta said in a speech in July.

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Exhibit No. 2: another ideal.
We call to the stand Tom Horne, Arizona attorney general and former superintendent of public instruction, who testified in court last March: “Public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people... What the state contemplates is you’ll have a class of students from all different backgrounds and they’ll be taught about oppression of different people, they’ll be taught about contributions of different minority groups, and they will all learn it together.”

And now, ladies and gentlemen,
Exhibit No. 3: the reality. Look at this tangle of thorns.

In 2010, Arizona signed into law HB 2281, a Horne-penned bill that made illegal any classes that “Promote the overthrow of the United States government” and/or “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” The bill was directed at Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program, which comprised about 45 classes and was attended by around 2,000 students at the high school level alone. The classes were accused of being propaganda-riddled political rallies that taught students to focus almost solely on racism and oppression, thereby engendering resentment toward white America. But supporters of the program contended that it did not breed resentment but rather promoted self-esteem, built intercultural bridges and boosted academic performance in a group that had been traditionally marginalized.

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Last December, Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal determined the MAS program violated HB 2281, now called ARS 15-111 and 15-112. Faced with the prospect of losing 10 percent of state education funding, or about $15 million, the TUSD dismantled the program the following month. Officials entered classrooms and, in front of students, removed books that were part of the curriculum and put them in a warehouse. Students and teachers were transferred to traditional classes, and some staff members’ contracts were not renewed. The events ignited a firestorm of controversy and protest nationwide, culminating this past July with Tucson Freedom Summer, a series of discussions, protests and outreach calling for the reinstitution of the program.

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Last March, TUSD teachers and students filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the law. As of press time, the court had not yet ruled, but one can say with certainty that either way the court decides, this debate is far from over. The seemingly local issue taps into the inherent conflict at the center of a multicultural free society, and the prejudices and fears simmering in the heart of humanity.

Is the law a political ploy by opportunists in a state where an anti-immigration stance wins elections? Was the ethnic studies program a platform for anti-American educators to create an army of chip-on-shoulder Chicanos to rise against the establishment? Or did both sides follow a path paved with good intentions into a race-enflamed inferno? That, latitudinous ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is for you to decide.

We call to the stand Sean Arce, former director of TUSD’s MAS program, whose contract was not renewed when the program was dismantled. Along with other Arizona educators, Arce, then a graduate student, developed the MAS program in the 1990s to address the marginalization of Latino students, who have a dropout rate of more than 50 percent nationwide.

“We really wanted to address the educational crisis that exists within the Latino community,” Arce says. “We wanted students to see themselves in the curriculum, to make our public institutions more responsive to our community’s needs, to make school for and about our students. That’s really important because there’s a real lack of engagement from our students because they don’t see themselves in the curriculum.”

Lorenzo Lopez, who taught American government and history under the MAS program and now teaches their traditional counterparts, agrees: “The fact that 50 percent of Latinos in this country are dropping out leads you to ask the question ‘Why are these students dropping out?’ And there are two possible answers. One is that they’re genetically inferior; they are intellectually incapable of competing at an academic level with other groups. That’s one answer, and of course it’s a very racist response. The other answer is [that] our system is inherently flawed. It is failing this group, and other groups, obviously. But if the latter answer is what we go with, then we have a responsibility to right that wrong, to address that. And that’s what we’re trying to do, that’s what our effort reflects.”

Imbuing lessons with Mayan philosophy, indigenous mythology, and magical realism, the classes swiveled the telescope of inquiry around and focused on how American events and laws affected Latinos, revealing a chronicle of racism and civil rights struggles. The program enjoyed statistical success: A 2011 audit, initiated by current state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal, found that high school students enrolled in MAS courses “graduate in the very least at a rate of 5 percent more than their counterparts in 2005, and at the most, a rate of 11 percent more in 2010.” According to Save Ethnic Studies, a coalition of former MAS teachers, “the dropout rate in this program is 2.5 percent, as opposed to 56 percent [of Mexican-American students] nationally. Students in the program significantly outperform their peers on the state’s standardized AIMS tests.”

More important than quantitative figures, Arce says, are qualitative measures. “We saw that students’ lives were really transformed by the program… Many of our students come from poor working class backgrounds, traditionally not engaged in education. So there was a real development of an academic identity, where students then saw themselves going from hating school, from being apathetic toward school [and] about issues in their community, to being fully engaged in school, demonstrating to themselves and their families that they were academically capable, to seeing themselves as agents of change, seeing themselves as contributors to their respective homes, to their communities.”

Lorenzo Lopez’s daughter, Karina Lopez, 15, got a taste of that transformation during multicultural classes that introduced her to the Mexican-American movement and Cesar Chavez. “It just struck me because it was like, ‘Wow, that’s me,’” the Tucson High student says. “That’s my ancestors. I’m tied to this. This is part of me. To know who I am, I need to know who I was, my people. So that was what made me want to learn. Because it’s my people, my history.”

During her sophomore year, Karina pre-registered for Latino Literature as well as Social Studies and History with a Mexican-American Perspective, which are only available to juniors and seniors. But before she could officially register, the program was eliminated. As a result, “I’m missing how I tie into this country,” says Karina, who along with her father is a plaintiff in the current case against the law. “They took away my chance to receive this education. Who are they to say that I can’t learn about this, ’cause, really, how am I gonna get it?... It’s not in the curriculum.”

TUSD students are now taking only the traditional classes that gloss over their history and contributed to their academic marginalization in the past. The fact that the fastest-growing student population in the country has its second-highest dropout rate (after Native Americans) has “far-reaching implications for our very democracy, for our economy, for politics, for the social aspect of our society if we continue on that trend,” Arce says. “If we don’t want to lose this entire population [of Latino students], one way to do it is to instill this curriculum, to instill a sense of pride in who these students are. You’re not going to get to any type of academic achievement if students don’t have a positive self image. An effective way to do that is to look at our history, look at our culture, look at our lived experiences. And not only to look at those but to analyze and come up with solutions for how to fix a lot of the problems that exist in our community. That’s why ethnic studies is so critical, because nothing else has worked for this large a group of students… These classes, this curriculum, this pedagogy really counters those negative trends.” 

But critics say that some TUSD teachers warped the pedagogy into a demagogy, not merely engendering resentment but encouraging it. Instead of looking at history through multiple lenses of culture and critical inquiry, they claim, the classes peered at it through a monocle of racism. Instead of instilling in Latino students that they are equal and worthy contributors to American society, it hammered into their heads that they are oppressed. And instead of proposing a harmonious solution to the problem of unequal rights, one MAS textbook postulated that the remedy might be “to unite in one powerful coalition to confront the power system that is oppressing them all.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,
Exhibit No. 4: A TUSD middle school lesson drafted by MAS teacher Jose Gonzalez entitled “From Cortes to Bush: 500 Years of Internalized Oppression Part 1” featured the following introduction: “In 1521, the Aztec’s [sic] and the indigenous people of the Americas went from being a people with human rights, to a people without any human rights. 500 years later nothing has changed. Indigenous people and our offspring have been dealing with a colonization process, which has wreaked havoc on our lives. First by Spain in 1521, and then by the United States in 1848… Five centuries of being at the bottom of the social, political, and economic rung have devastated our humanity… Our minds and souls have been damaged and now it is time to regain and re-affirm our humanity.”

Exhibit No. 5: In an MAS history lesson authored by Arce, court documents stated, students are “taught that myths about the history of the Mexicano/Chicano people have been used to justify the atrocities that have been and continue to be committed against them.” Students are required to read the article “The ‘H’ Word,” which states, “In the United States, there are seemingly no more Mexicanos, Chicanos, or Centro Americanos or Puertoriquenos, etc… only generic and seemingly ruthless Hispanics… It is the descendants of these Plymouth Rockers who want to once again Americanize those whom preceded them – Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and la Chicanada – particularly those who use the X [Xicanos] – because they know its significance: indigenous. They do this because it is we who remind them of their immigrant past and perhaps we also remind them that despite their best efforts to annihilate our cultures, they remain alive and vibrant.”

Exhibit No. 6: One of former MAS director Dr. Augustine Romero’s PowerPoint presentations defines “racism” as a “doctrine of racial supremacy that advocates the superiority of one race over all others. Within the United States of America’s political, social, educational and economic systems, white supremacy is most often advocated, reproduced and perpetuated.” The presentation also includes descriptions of social justice theories utilized in the classroom, including Angela Valenzuela’s “subtractive schooling” theory: “The American dual strategy of condemnation and exclusion best defines the Latinos’ experiences when they attempt to become members of the educated population within the American system of racism. Historically the Latino has been excluded from the education system or they have been admit[ted] into what can be called ‘Americanization Camps,’ wherein they are raped of their culture and language. And after these violations take place the Latino feels inferior and defenseless. Which leads to the belief that education is not something that cannot [sic] be theirs. The above mentioned has been conducted in an attempt to control, perpetuate, and elevate the level of white supremacy within the United States of America.”

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Exhibit No. 7: A Latino Literature class final exam includes this essay prompt: “All year long we have read stories where the Mexican-Americans were discriminated against, taken advantage of, oppressed, etc. We are destined to repeat history if we don’t do something to change it. Reflect on what we have read about this year and in an essay, write about what we can do as a group to change things. What will you do as an individual to change things?”

Exhibit No. 8: A parent whose white daughter attended Jose Gonzalez’s government class told her the class described “how the Anglo-Saxons had treated other people badly, particularly Chicano people.” The girl reported to her mother that “by the end of the class... most of the other students would not talk to her at all, except the students who were not of Hispanic background.”

Exhibit No. 9: John Ward, former TUSD teacher of American History from a Chicano Perspective, and of Hispanic descent himself, testified: “The teachers and administrators in the MAS program were radical socialist activists who promoted an anti-capitalist and anti-Western Civilization ideology. They use ethnic solidarity as their vehicle of delivery. [They] were vehemently opposed to the culture of the United States and indoctrinated their students with this message. MAS staff promoted racial and ethnic solidarity among students and fostered an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Accepting the MAS staff’s views was a litmus test for students to demonstrate that they were ‘Raza’ (race) – in other words a proud member of their ethnic group… They taught students that they were victims who were oppressed by a white, racist, capitalist system. [They made] comments to MAS students such as ‘Your Anglo teachers don’t want you in AP (advanced placement) classes because they do not want you to succeed. This is how Anglos keep us on the bottom.’”

Exhibit No. 10: District Board President Dr. Mark Stegeman observed Curtis Acosta’s class and heard the students collectively chant, “We must be willing to act in a revolutionary spirit.” Stegeman says Acosta urged students to attend a Cesar Chavez march, reminding them that “we are still in the struggle.” Stegeman described the Latino Literature class as “a cult,” “pure political proselytizing,” and “a political rally.”

“This is not critical thinking,” Stegeman said. “It does teach resentment.”

But Lorenzo Lopez says such sentiments had no place in his classroom. It’s worth noting that, in every school, different teachers foster quite different atmospheres in their respective classrooms. Lorenzo’s manner is soft-spoken and gentle, and his daughter says his classes are filled with hugs, handshakes, warmth and welcome to students of all races.

“All students in my class, those are my children,” Lorenzo says. “That includes white kids, and that goes against everything that I stand for as a human being to allow one of my kids to resent, to hate, to make any one of them feel inferior or subject to reproach of any kind. It wasn’t them personally. But at the same time you can’t change history. These events did take place, and to ignore them would be malpractice, it would be misconduct. What we try to do is to present these events, learn from them, and move forward. Ultimately our goal is to humanize each other and our role in society. Hate and resentment is a toxic thing for those people carrying it. And it would be irresponsible and unprofessional of me to engender that in my students, among my children. So we don’t do any of those things, because it would stunt their progress as human beings. It would stunt their humanity. It would stunt their ability to move on and flourish.”

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Karina Lopez dismisses the idea that MAS classes would make her want to overthrow the U.S. government. “I just laugh at it because it’s so absurd to me,” she says. “Yes, I am Mexican, but I am Mexican-American. Just because I am learning about part of me doesn’t mean that I don’t like my country, that I want to go live in Mexico. It’s all a part of who I am and part of this country, because this whole country is a place of immigrants, of people coming together and building one big community.”

“We’re looking at the American experience in its totality,” Arce says. “It’s important for our students to know that the Chicano-Latino community [did] fight and obtain many of their rights that we experience today… But there are other episodes in history that it’s important to look at, and those are primarily document-based. It is what has happened. The indiscriminate lynching of Mexicanos, Chicanos here in the Southwest. The deportations of hundreds of thousands of citizens. The dual wage system that existed. The exploitation in the mines and the railroads. Those are things that I think all Americans need to look at and have the courage to look at and analyze and examine. And it shouldn’t develop any type of resentment. We found through our practice that it actually builds bridges of historical understanding, cultural understanding, and it’s good for all folks to look at.”

During one of the trials, the court presented photos – used in an MAS middle school lesson – that showed Texas Rangers and Californians lynching Mexicans. They asked Arce if the images promote resentment. “I said, I don’t know; that’s up to someone to interpret,” Arce says. “It’s a historical primary document. It’s an episode in history that happened... How can you have something that is historically documented on trial? How can you have different historical interpretations on trial? I mean, that’s really telling you that there’s only one historical narrative to look at in this country, and that’s criminal. That’s anti-intellectual. It’s very racist to point out one group and say their history is not valid.”

There’s the rub: How do you teach the often shameful episodes of history without engendering resentment? How do you assign Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to Native American students without stirring up ill will? How do you explain the WWII Japanese internment camps to a Pan-Asian studies class? How do you teach women about centuries of subjugation without breeding a generation of bitter young ballbreakers? And as The Daily Show’s Al Madrigal posed the question to TUSD board member Michael Hicks, “I’m a black kid. Try to teach me about slavery without me feeling resentment towards white people.”

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The issues are as inescapable in literature as they are in history. A revealing recorded conversation is available online between MAS teacher Curtis Acosta, TUSD assistant superintendent Abel Morado, and Tucson High School assistant principal David Mandel. After the MAS program was eliminated, administrators removed copies of seven MAS books from classrooms, but an additional 70-some tomes were relegated to a literary limbo. Arce says MAS teachers were not allowed to teach the books, but other teachers were. In the recorded conversation, TUSD officials tell Acosta he can teach one of those books – The Tempest, by William Shakespeare – if he avoids discussing the “nexus of race, class, and oppression.” He points out that even if he complies, students will pick up on the fact that a play about a European man who lands on an island in the New World, learns about the lay of the land from the natives and then enslaves them, is probably about colonialism, and therefore race. Another teacher suggests he assign something safer, like Huckleberry Finn. Oh, wait. To Kill a Mockingbird? Definitely not. 

So the question remains: How do you teach humanity about humanity while avoiding the vices of humanity? That, ladies and gentlemen, is for you to decide.