Republicans in the Arizona legislature are at war with the state’s universities. Last year the legislature attempted to limit professors’ ability to assign texts that might make students “uncomfortable.” Basically, the end result of that measure would have meant that students could opt out of having to read anything at all. It also included a provision that would have forbidden professors from taking any action that might “endorse, support or oppose any pending, proposed or enacted local, state or federal legislation, regulation or rule.” Yeah, because why would we want universities to be places where people think and discuss legislation? Apparently Arizona Republicans have taken a look at higher education in their state and said to themselves, “You know, I would really like higher education to be less educational.”
This year, the Republican legislature has proposed an even more insidious bill. SB 1108 would forbid students from participating in groups organized around racial solidarity. So, for instance, students could not join the Black Business Students Association, Native Americans United or MEChA (Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán). Whether one agrees with these groups or not, one would have thought they would be protected by freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Arizona Republicans say "No!" You can sign a petition against this measure here.
Moreover, the measure would also forbid courses to be organized around race. Latino/a Studies, African American studies, and Asian American studies would all be illegal. Note to self: Never take an academic job in Arizona. Note to current Arizona Professors: Get out, if you can.
Republicans have called this measure part of “Homeland Security.” They promise to cut state funding to Arizona schools whose courses “denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” SB 1108 also would bar teachers from “overtly encouraging dissent” from those values, including democracy, capitalism, pluralism and religious toleration. All teaching materials would have to be approved by the school superintendent for review.
We can set aside the stuff that is just plain confusing or nonsensical (How exactly has Mexico not participated in “Western Civilization?” Why is participating in the Black Business Students Association against capitalism?). We can focus, instead, on the ways that this measure combines Republicans' favorite forms of disinformation.
First, of course, it upholds the myth that we live in a “color-blind” society. It ignores that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor, excluded from higher education, and earn less than their white counterparts. Whites remain the majority of university students (even in states (like Texas) with a non-white majority) at most flagship institutions. Yet, these measures place the blame for racist institutional practices onto minorities. MEChA emerged forty years ago to combat racism in the United States. In a classic Orwellian move, however, Rep. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) and other supporters of the bill have declared that it is groups like MEChA that are “real” racists.
Republicans and other conservatives get testy when notions of race move beyond their control. Clearly MEChA doesn’t understand that racial categories are only supposed to be used to oppress people. Using race as a means to organize for social justice is so missing the point.
This isn’t to say, obviously, that every member of MEChA or similar left-leaning organizations is automatically a saint. Both individually and collectively, they make mistakes. A few members of the left on university campuses, for instance, have wrongly tried to silence people on the right. They must also be educated about the importance of universities being sites of free speech and intellectual engagement.
Don’t be fooled, though. People on the right are not interested in “academic freedom.” They are interested in crushing any person who dares to say they are wrong.
For over a decade, members of the right have been attacking universities and attempting to control their curriculum. A former - liberal - turned - neoconservative named David Horowitz led the charge starting in the 1990s. In essence, Horowitz claimed that university-level humanities departments had become secret havens for Democrats. He put forward (without any real evidence) the outlandish claim that these same faculty keep conservatives out, deprive them of funding, and openly indoctrinate their students to blindly vote Democrat. In an unexpected twist, Horowitz and crew claim that their own Academic Freedom is being impinged.
The notion that college humanities departments are hotbeds of radicalism seems fairly laughable. From my vantage point, these departments are pretty darn conservative. The faculty is not racially diverse (not even coming close to representing the general population of the nation); they loathe change; and they maintain the status quo more than they rock the ship of state.
Moreover, Republicans give faculty way too much credit while giving university students none at all. If, as a professor, I had the power to “indoctrinate” my students, do you think that Bush would still be sitting in the White House? I have no special power to brainwash my students into being radicals. Heck, I can’t even convince my students to use the spell checker on their wordprocessor before submitting a paper. Just imagine how little power I have to foment revolution.
This is not to say that my politics don’t inform my research and my research doesn’t inform my politics. It would be impossible for me, as a Latino historian, to disentangle those two components. I own and make explicit my political perspective to my students and suggest that it does, indeed, influence my teaching.
Being explicit about my perspective does not mean that I am trying to dazzle or trick students into sharing my political ideas. Instead, I believe that students are smart enough to grapple with the information presented in my class. They always decide what to think on their own (as they should). Trust me, students can be asked to question social relations of power, government authority, imperialism, and resistance without having a single one fly off to Cuba the next morning.
Unlike those on the right, moreover, my own political ideology is not threatened knowing that other professors express viewpoints counter to mine in their classrooms. Students should hear as many ideas as possible.
Universities are supposed to be places where students encounter a wide-range of ideas and perspectives. Students learn how to reconcile those ideas for themselves – that is the point of an education – Learning to think independently and stuff.
What the right wants to do with these measures is silence dissent. The right’s vision of “not indoctrinating” really means that we should never hear or learn from people different from themselves. Apparently people on the right imagine that their own intellectual positions are so fragile that they won’t survive a confrontation with alternative epistemologies. Ironically, by shutting down university professors who propose radical ideas about the nation, the right implies that those ideas are more attractive than the status quo.
Finally, it is not surprising that this effort would occur around the time that Arizona is projecting a massive budget deficit for 2009. In a classic move, Republicans look to distract Arizona from their economic mismanagement of the state. Instead, they claim that they are in an ideological war with the “left” to “preserve” the nation. If they really want to preserve the nation, they might look into the collapsing value of the U.S. dollar. That will destroy this nation much faster than a prof who dares to suggest that Mexican migrants have basic human rights.