Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ethnic Studies is for Everyone

Arizona’s legislature and governor recently decided to try to end ethnic studies within the state’s public schools. While it might be easy to ridicule Arizona (fun, too), we should be careful about assuming that the Grand Canyon state is anomalous in these efforts. It is merely one piece of an increasingly reactionary right-wing effort to control education curriculum. Far-right members of the Board of Education in Texas also recently attempted to alter that state’s “social studies” standards with a similar philosophy as Arizona: Students shouldn’t learn anything about this nation’s past that might make them feel bad.

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 consumer student demands or die. BMU wants to see students in seats. With all of these attacks on ethnic studies programs, we may well ask, have ethnic studies programs become anachronistic?

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.


dykewife said...

at the university of saskatchewan, religious studies, women and gender studies and anthropology have all been or are in the process of being, combined with other departments. i'm not sure religious studies is going to be anywhere, women and gender studies is being lumped into sociology and anthropology has been absorbed into archaeology.

the move up here is more about shifting monies and resources to the trades of university, the sciences, economics, law, medicine, and of course, in the prairie province, agriculture.

happily enough, native studies is a growing department. the university has been actively engaged in recruiting and supporting aboriginal students. in order to do so they have to have courses that interest them and are sensitive to their cultures. with the recent closing of the first nations university of canada, the u of s is going to play are more crucial role in post secondary education of aboriginal people in saskatchewan.

also tied into the native studies department are sociology with the aboriginal justice program and law with aboriginal law.

i'm not so naive to think that the university is going in this direction out of the goodness of the governors' hearts. there is a lot of money in the hands of aboriginal communities that are paying for this education and the university wants a part of that. if the money were to dry up, so would the departments and courses.

oh, and my word verification is pocki.

Mel said...

"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?'"

Silly GayProf. The answer is clearly that they just plain hate freedom. And white people. Because they're racist, of course.

Any question is easy to tackle if you already have a priori answers.

GayProf said...

DykeWife: Thanks for the Saskatchewan update. It seems that Canadian universities are grappling with the same impulses as the U.S. I am amazed that there wasn't more student protest at the dissolution of women and gender studies. You are right that university administrators are most often motivated by money. If a program can find a way to bring in the dollars, it faces no danger.

Mel: Well, thankfully Arizona public schools are now going to teach them how to be individuals. Cuz, you know, they all were trapped into a single consciousness.

Roger Owen Green said...

The core issue, though, is the underlying notion that racism, sexism, et al only affect those subjected to them, so it is "their" problem. Thus ethnic studies, women's studies are "add ons" that "we don't need".
No, we need to know more about Jerry Falwell (TX school board).

tornwordo said...

I for one am not holding out much hope for that last line.

Dean Grey said...

Wonder Woman RULES!!!!!!

Though I'm not a fan of bitchy-Diana.

Only the confident, compassionate, and loving Wondy for me!


Anonymous said...

This is a GREAT post. Thanks for sharing.

Rebekah said...

Oh Torn, no matter what,there is always hope.

What Roger said. Without education, we only see and understand our world from a singular perspective. It's sad that so many in power are doing just that.

Great post, as usual Gayprof.

susurro said...

"you know you’ve crossed into a new horizon of crazy" I'm printing this on business cards as we speak (properly cited of course).

I've been writing similar posts abt how little the uni gains econ wise by canceling ES and WS for a while now & I think you're right to point to both TX and AZ for underlining causes. And if anyone is interested there is a pretty thorough link of all of the back and forth on things to remove or add in to the textbooks available online. My "favs": remove Ida B Wells and add in Phyllis Schlafly (Ida B wasn't even in my textbook as a kid), remove references to cultural movements and leaders and add in history of The Moral Majority (which is apparently devoid of culture). The list is both amusing for its ignorance and deeply disturbing for its big reveals on what some people are really thinking about our nation, its laws, and rights to citizenship and equality.

Interestingly, both here and where colleagues teach on both coasts, there have been moves to collapse all the ES programs and the WS program into an unnamed Identity Studies Program and in some cases fire any untenured folks. In all cases, students and faculty have stopped that from happening through joint efforts (except FL which I think actually saw WS and AFAM organizing separately) but I wonder how arguments for distinct programs/departments jives with other arguments for interdisciplinary majors (ie for having departments that look at multicultural feminisms and queer ids). One comes from the place of erasure and the other from wanting more cross-over but could the savvy administrator use the latter to achieve the former?

Anonymous said...

>>Silly GayProf. The answer is clearly that they just plain hate freedom. And white people. Because they're racist, of course.<<

Ah, but you see, Mel, all the answers are a priori.

The question assumes the answer.

You can demonstrate this: Spin the question around and ask "If
Chicana activists are anything but deluded antisocial idealogues, why would the vast majority dismiss their ideas?"

Aha. You see what happens then. Racism, the very answer you mocked, suddenly becomes the first thing you reach for, doesn't it?

"Ethnic studies" is little more than a pointless exercise in forcing people into a descriptive box to justify "positive" racism. I.e, the concept that some ethnic group deserves some special consideration because of some special trait they posess as a group.

The unspoken flip side is always that other groups lack that special trait. Positive racism- "ethnic pride"- always creates negative racism, it just doesn't admit to it.

I'd replace it all with Human studies.

I am "American" but I didn't build the Hoover Dam, land on the Moon, cure Smallpox or defeat the Nazis. Why should I be prouder of these things than any other grand and worthwhile thing other people did?