One of the more astounding elements in the Texas changes is that they sought to downplay Thomas Jefferson’s role within the curriculum because of his critique of Christianity. That’s deep, man. How much more conservative can Texas get? When you start thinking that one of the slave-holding, elite “founding fathers” was just “too liberal” you know you’ve crossed into a new horizon of crazy. I imagine that the only place further to the political right you could go next would be to start arguing that George III wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Next thing you know, the Texas school board will be suggesting that the U.S. war for Independence was just some socialist conspiracy, what with their demands for a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.
Leaders in Arizona couched their animosity to ethnic studies as really being about defending the ideals of the nation. Tom Horne, the architect of Arizona’s measure, pulled off a neat rhetorical trick that the right has found so useful these days. He posited that programs initiated to combat institutional racism are, in fact, the “real racism.” “The most offensive thing to me, fundamentally, is dividing kids by race,” Horne stated to the New York Times. Tucson’s ethnic studies programs (where Latino/a children make up 56 percent of the students enrolled) particularly irked Horne. He claimed that existing Mexican-American classes “are teaching a radical ideology in Raza, including that Arizona and other states were stolen from Mexico and should be given back.” Of course, Horne never bothered to actually attend any of these classes or find out their daily content. Nope. Why worry about things like that when you are ceratin you are right?
Really Horne gives ethnic studies teachers/professors too much credit. As I often say, I can’t convince my students of the need to use the spell checker before they submit their assignments, much less alter their political views about the nation (nor is that my goal).
Horne wants a new curriculum that depicts his fairytale version of the nation with an education focused on the “individual” How one can talk about a nation only through individuality seems to be a paradox to me, but what do I know?
Now, I haven’t been involved in Arizona’s ethnic studies programs, so I am as ignorant as Horne to their particular content. It would be foolish to comment about it without more first hand knowledge. So, the rest of this post is not about the Arizona public schools in particular.
I do know ethnic studies programs broadly, though, and can imagine that Horne is operating off of some pretty outdated notions of Chicano Studies. Most Chicano/a Studies programs would indeed encourage students to question the intent and results of the U.S. Mexican War. In doing so, they aren’t offering a radical reinterpretation of historical events, but instead offering students opportunities to think critically about hotly contested issues that were, in fact, alive in the nineteenth century (even Abraham Lincoln believed the U.S.’s rationale for the war to be dubious). But when was the last time that you heard any Latino/a scholar, politician, or activist invoke Chicano nationalism (the idea that the U.S. is unredeemable and Chicano/as should break off to form a separate nation)? That form of Chicano nationalism has dropped out of the popular discourse so much that I have to explain the very idea to my students when we reach the sixties and seventies. Otherwise they assume “Chicano nationalists” were deeply patriotic toward the U.S. So, you might say that Horne and his ilk are battling the Ghost of Chicano Past.
These recent moves in Texas and Arizona suggest that the far right is looking to win votes by appealing to people’s worst intentions. Apparently hating the gays isn’t the vote getter that it used to be for the GOP, so they are reverting back to the tried-and-true in U.S. history: exploiting anxieties about racial difference.
All of this comes at the same time that there has been a lot of hand wringing at Big Midwestern University about the future of its own ethnic studies programs. The omnipresent budget crisis that exists across academia has led some to suggest that ethnic studies programs are unnecessarily costly. This is somewhat absurd given that ethnic studies programs’ operating costs aren’t even a drop in the bucket of the whole university. Nonetheless, cuts must be made somewhere. Proposals have ranged anywhere from eliminating Chicano/a Studies and other ES programs entirely to creating a monolithic ethnic studies program that will “include everybody.” While most scholars (and anybody who thinks for more than five minutes) discount the idea that we now live in a “post-racial nation,” some are nonetheless suggesting that individual ethnic studies programs have passed their prime. Previous arguments that the individual units each provide much needed and distinct service to the campus by providing diversity no longer hold. The message has been clear: The ethnic studies programs must adapt to the current model of
Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I think it is premature to dig a grave for ethnic studies. Besides, when the time comes, ethnic studies would much rather be cremated.
Ethnic Studies Programs still address key needs within the nation’s schools and universities. Rather than shirking from these attacks or going on the defensive, it may well be worth the effort for ethnic studies programs to reevaluate their core missions and goals. For my part, I’ll talk specifically about Latino Studies.
No single history or literature class can cover everything about the United States in great detail. Added into that is the fact that many (most?) U.S. history professors and teachers continue to omit any mention of Laitno/as at all in their course content. Specific courses on ethnic groups permit us to consider unique experiences within the U.S. They provide basic knowledge that all citizens in the U.S. can use. Had he taken a Latino Studies course, for instance, Vaughn Ward, the Republican congressional candidate from Idaho, might not have made the huge gaffe of declaring Puerto Rico a separate country.
As many attempted to point out in the Arizona case,“heritage” students do find education more rewarding and personally relevant if they are able to engage with materials related to their own sense of cultural and racial identity. Ethnic studies units provide support and a fundamental knowledge about the histories, experiences, and artistic expressions of groups that are not often discussed.
It is a mistake, though, to assume that ethnic studies programs can (or do) only serve “ethnic” students. Horne and others erroneously imagined that the existing Chicano/a studies programs excluded non-Latino/a students (which they did not). On the contrary, regardless of a student’s personal racial identity, ethnic studies programs provide a cultural and intellectual competence to think critically about this increasingly diverse nation. Race-studies units work in partnership with women’s studies and LGBTQQ studies to provide alternative perspectives on the history and experiences of various groups within the United States.
Much to Horne’s dismay, ethnic studies programs reveal that this country wasn’t (isn’t) always a fair place. Certainly the nation has given Horne a good ride, a nice standard of living, and political access. Had he learned more about ethnic studies, though, he would learn that his individual experience cannot be translated to an entire nation’s worth of people. Racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of social inequalities have prevented the country from living up to its self proclaimed goals. Indeed, he might even ask the historical question, “If the U.S. is a land of such opportunity and egalitarianism, just why did Chicano/a activists ever advocate breaking off from it?” Chicano/a activists in the sixties and seventies developed cultural-historical narratives that were therapeutic at the time, but as mythical as Horne’s imagining of a race-blind U.S. He could condemn Chicano/a activists if he likes, but their experiences and strategies are nonetheless part of U.S. history.
Providing exposure to the unique experiences of ethnic groups remains a key element of ethnic studies programs. To expand their usefulness and explain their value to those seeking to trim the budget, ethnic studies programs will need to establish themselves as providing key support for students in a variety of careers. While politicians and scholars are losing sleep about the future of ethnic studies programs, professionals in health, law, education, and marketing are already well aware of the potential value of ethnic studies. These are fields that see first hand the rapid transformation of this nation and the emergence of Latinos as the nation’s largest minority. These are also fields that are desperate for professionals who have the cultural competence to enhance their services to diverse populations.
To end, I’ll say that I am always surprised when folks like Mr. Horne accuse professionals in ethnic studies of being irrationally angry or “hating America.” Where do I hear people saying that we should hate the government? It seems to me that these days that message is much more likely to come from the right wing Tea baggers. They tend to ignore that the current government was elected by a hefty majority of voters or that their radical views are far outside of the mainstream.
Ethnic studies, women’s studies, LGBTQQ studies, disability studies, and others do remind us that the nation has lots more work to do before it can claim to be governed by the consent of the people. People on the right are mistaken, however, if they imagine that these units are fueled by anger. On the contrary, these units actually have a tremendous optimism that the future can be better than the past for everybody in the country. Pointing out institutional inequities isn’t the end game for ethnic studies. Ethnic studies programs also interrogate the variety of strategies that various groups have employed to battle and transform institutional inequalities. Scholars in those fields have faith that learning from the hard work of previous generations will ultimately lead to the nation becoming the egalitarian republic it pledges to be.