To Teach or Not To Teach Cultural Pluralism in Arizona

As a teacher, I like to think my job involves preparing the new generations to enter a pre-existing world, and to help students transition from the private sphere of their homes and families, to the public sphere where they acquire voices and political identities, and where they can be politically active in the future.

The Arizona public school system was doing exactly that, with a student population of 41% Hispanic, they included a Mexican American and Ethnic Studies program implemented in high schools to allow a smoother transition between the private and the public. This program was a project with the goal of allowing students to produce social, political, and cultural critique while keeping a sense of their historical, racial, and cultural identity.

Some of the books to be read were: ‘Critical Race Theory’ by Richard Delgado, ’500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures’ edited by Elizabeth Martinez, ‘Message to AZTLAN’ by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales, ‘Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement’ by Arturo Rosales, ‘Occupied America: A History of Chicanos’ by Rodolfo Acuna, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Freire, and ‘Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years’ by Bill Bigelow.

This program would have allowed Hispanic students to keep their sense of identity as they include it in their future lives of political citizenship. It would have allowed for productive spaces where history, natality, and identity could be forged. It might have encouraged higher levels of self-esteem in those students who endure racial discrimination, or end up dropping out all together.

The benefits of these programs were explained in a Huff Post article this March:

“The experimental Tucson curriculum was offered to students in different forms in some of the local elementary, middle and high schools. It emphasized critical thinking and focused on Mexican-American literature and perspectives. Supporters lauded the program, pointing to increased graduation rates, high student achievement and a state-commissioned independent audit that recommended expanding the classes.” Roque Planas writes.

But, in 2012, the state of Arizona’s ban against the program limited such learning. Conservative opponents accused the teachers of encouraging students to adopt left-wing ideas and resent white people, a charge the teachers deny.

As I write, my neighborhood in Queens, New York, blends the gifts of diversity where cultures cultivate each other. The languages of older generations clash and are renewed culturally by the new ones, and multicultural identities are produced from the remains of the old ones. Hannah Arendt made natality- the human condition of having been born-the central concept of her political theory. Insofar as new generations enter a pre-existing world and intervene with their identity, thoughts, and actions, they are historical beings entering a pre-existing public sphere. The dynamic movement of this public sphere actively engages in the emergence of new languages, new cultures, and new practices.

The state law used to shut down or limit Mexican-American and ethnic studies programs in Arizona is creating the opposite of a dynamic public sphere. It promotes instead a mono-cultural, stagnant, homogenous environment to be implemented in the classrooms by denying the access to diverse histories and identities. It promotes an unrealistic idea of homogeneity and is an act that promotes hegemony and colonization of the other.

The question remains (although countless teachers already now the answer) can the task of preparing in advance the new generations for intervening and renewing a common world be achieved successfully with the ban of books, and the shut down, or limiting of programs which promote cultural diversity? Apparently, conservative legislators think so.

To promote cultural diversity, it is central to defend an open, dynamic public sphere instead, where the implementation of these programs are the most accommodating for the needs of the new generations of students. The monoculture, and homogenous educational sphere that conservative legislators in Arizona want to promote is unable to meet the racial, social, cultural and complex identities of the immigrant, or non-white, student.

This Friday, Colorlines informed that “A group of students and parents have appealed the March decision to uphold the ban with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the ban violates First and 14th amendments and goes against recommendations from educators and experts.” Von Díaz writes. The appeal argues that “when Huppenthal ordered the program to be shut down, he arbitrarily disregarded the input of Tucson school district officials, education experts and independent audit” according to the Arizona Daily Star.

This news doesn’t surprise me. Although the complete disregard of input from educators by conservative legislators, shows how far some groups can go to preserve its closed off, monocultural policy in classrooms. Insofar as one’s origin and history is connected to racial, social, and political identities, Arizona legislature is scared of allowing a curriculum with non-western literature, history, and native languages that might foment an anti-white sentiment among populations of non-white students.

Linda Alcoff argued in a 2012 New York Times article, “the Arizona legislature is not concerned with misnamed targets but with having any targets at all. Tom Horne was incensed when students walked out of an assembly in 2006, protesting English-only policies and calling out Republicans for having anti-Latino racism. He does not want politically active Latinos in his state. He wants them to shut up and keep mowing the lawns.” (2012/04/01)

It is in a multicultural sphere where students reconcieve concepts of culture, language, and race to their natality, history, and identities. These new concepts of self might actually contribute to the health of individuals and societies. On the other hand, the sustenance of a monocultural sphere defended by conservative groups and legislators in Arizona does not contribute to this project. Policies should be re-examined if we are to succesfully prepare the new generations to come into a pre-existing world, intervening and renewing it with their thoughts and actions in the public sphere. What is at stake, overall, is our very educational system. Scholars in Tucson who started an organization called “SaveEthnicStudies.Org” are arguing for the sustenance of this multicultural sphere. I will end this article with their statement:

How this case goes may well determine whether politicians have control over what is taught in our schools. Whether teachers can teach diverse perspectives of history and literature. Whether Latino students, historically behind in standardized tests and graduation rates, can catch up with the rest of the student population. And whether those Latino students will emerge from our schools with a sense of who they are, what their people have, and are still contributing to America, and a deep belief in serving and uniting our communities toward building a stronger nation.

Bio: I am a NYC based writer, immigrant, and teacher from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I think poetically about Latin America, intersectionaly within feminism, and critically about pop-culture. You can follow my tweets at https://twitter.com/CarolinaADrake

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