U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History Wars 2011, Arizona-style

I first heard about the horrible January 8 Tucson massacre minutes after reading a front page New York Times story about a Tucson teacher fighting the implementation of the new Arizona anti-ethnic studies law, passed shortly after that sunbelt state also legislated its infamous anti-immigration law. At the risk of placing Jared Loughner’s heinous individual act in a larger political context, I must admit that I momentarily felt like the cosmos were speaking to me. Battles over the curriculum have always been just as much about society as school, so I figured it was no coincidence that Arizona was the home of so much political and educational strife. But this post is not about placing blame on anyone other than Loughner for the massacre. (Who wants to risk being charged with a “blood libel,” especially before tenure?) Rather, I would like to investigate the battle over ethnic studies in Arizona by relating it to the intellectual history of the “History Wars” (an offspring of the culture wars).

Although the ban on ethnic studies is a statewide Arizona law, so far only one program in Tucson has come under suspicion for supposedly violating the law’s strictures against advocating “ethnic solidarity” or promoting “the overthrow of the United States.” Disbanding the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Program seems to be the unbending objective of Tom Horne, Arizona’s former state superintendent of public instruction and newly elected attorney general. He charges the program, led by teacher Curtis Acosta, with “propagandizing,” “brainwashing,” and openly seeking “resegregation.”

Although Acosta assigns Shakespeare and other authors traditionally thought of as “appropriate,” he relies heavily on two books that the program’s critics have singled out: Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rodolpho Acuna’s Occupied America. Do these books advocate “ethnic solidarity” or promote “the overthrow of the United States”? If the answer is yes for Freire, then teachers across the nation are being trained to overthrow the government, since Pedagogy of the Oppressed has long been included in the education school canon. More realistically, I would argue that if Acosta’s teenage students can decipher any meaning from Freire’s opaque attempt to enlist teachers in the revolution, then they are smarter readers than those who mistake Freire for some sort of Marxist revolutionary. Stripped of its revolutionary rhetoric, Freire’s pedagogy hardly differs from John Dewey’s pragmatic theories about child-centeredness. In other words, teachers (the privileged) have a lot to learn from children (the oppressed).

What about Occupied America? Hired to teach in one of the first Chicano Studies programs at Cal-State Northridge in the late 1960s, programs that formed as a result of student protest, Acuna sought to write a textbook that would give Chicanos (that sixties-era political label Mexican-American activists gave to themselves) a history. At no point in this book, first published in 1972 and now in its sixth edition, does Acuna promote overthrowing the United States government. And as he makes clear in a recent interview, he does not advocate for the southwest United States to return to Mexican jurisdiction. As he says, he titles his book “Occupied America,” not “Occupied Mexico.” That said, there is little doubt that Acuna’s book is a history meant to enhance ethnic solidarity. So does assigning it violate Arizona’s new anti-ethnic studies law? It depends on how the book is used. If the book is read with a critical eye—as we historians teach our students to read texts—then the answer is an unqualified no. But if Occupied America is read as the unvarnished truth—as a fundamentalist reads a foundational religious text, or as a Tea Partier reads the Constitution—then the answer is yes. But this begs another question: So what? In other words, what’s wrong with ethnic solidarity?

The obvious answer: a whole lot. Turned on its head, the ultra-conservative Texas Board of Education’s infamous rewriting of the Texas history curriculum comes across as an egregious form of ethnic, religious, and political solidarity that has no place in the schools. Or just this week, a collection of Tennessee Tea Party groups demanded the following of its state curriculum: “no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.” In other words, little things like slavery and genocide should not be allowed to sully the great deeds of the white men who founded this unique nation, even though they “actually occurred.” (This nicely relates to Gordon Wood’s strange defense of memory over history in his critique of Jill Lepore, analyzed here at USIH by David.)

Jonathan Zimmerman wrote an op-ed shortly after Arizona passed its anti-ethnic studies law last summer where he argued that the two sides of the debate—Horne versus Acosta, or more symbolically, the Texas Board of Education versus ethnic studies—are both wrong. He calls this “the subtext of the latest controversy in Arizona, which has become ground zero in America’s continuing struggle to define itself. The combatants in this battle resemble each other much more than either side is willing to admit.” He continues: “Do the ethnic studies classes in Tucson analyze [Occupied America]’s argument so students can decide if they agree? I doubt it. Like mainstream history classes, they probably present one point of view as the truth….” In other words, Zimmerman thinks that the ethnic studies classroom operates like most high school history classrooms in America, where very little critical thinking about history takes place. Zimmerman, rightly, wants all high school students to study history as we historians study history.

But should our analysis of ethnic studies end there? I would argue that equating ethnic studies to mainstream high school history, or more speciously, to the conservative variant being pushed in Texas and Tennessee, ignores the intellectual history of Chicano studies, which I briefly outline here.

The Chicano movement of the late sixties certainly trumpeted ethnic solidarity, or what later came to be known as identity politics. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales was one of the more eloquent and convincing spokespersons for Chicano power. Gonzales directed the Denver-based Crusade for Justice, a Mexican-American activist group that considered its mission to foster “a sense of identity and self-worth” among Chicanos. Both in his speeches and in his poetry, Gonzales emphasized that improvements to the Mexican-American condition necessitated self-realization. Gonzales complained that so many Mexican-Americans identified “with success and the Anglo image” instead of with Aztlán, his term for the Mexican Diaspora, and that it was imperative to “admit that we have a different set of values.” He said that Mexican Americans needed to be more aware of “their cultural attributes, their historical contributions, their self-identity and most importantly their self-worth.”

Corky Gonzales’s “epic” 1967 poem I Am Joaquín mixed hyper-attention to Chicano identity with countercultural tropes about alienation. Joaquín, representative of Aztlán, existed “in the grasp of American social neurosis.” “Unwillingly dragged by that monstrous, technical industrial giant called Progress,” Joaquín recalled venerable rebel leaders of the Mexican past—Benito Juarez, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata—in order to symbolically resist “a country that has wiped out all my history, stifled all my pride.” Culture was Joaquín’s battleground. “I am the masses of my people, and I refuse to be absorbed.” According to Gonzales, I am Joaquín “was a journey back through history, a painful self-evaluation, a wandering search for my peoples, and, most of all, for my own identity.” In the words of Carlos Muñoz, the founding chair of the nation’s first Chicano Studies program at California State University at Los Angeles, “the most significant aspect of I am Joaquín was that it captured both the agony and the jubilation permeating the identity crisis faced by Mexican American youth in the process of assimilation.”

Gonzales did not view Chicano nationalism as narrow or inhibiting. “Nationalism is a tool for organization not a weapon for hatred,” he wrote. Gonzales saw Chicano nationalism as a stepping-stone to an international movement of oppressed peoples, in turn a springboard to universal human liberation. However, there was a proper order of struggle, and the particular preceded the universal. “Dealing only within our own sphere of involvement, we must teach on a grassroots level and identify with our own self worth and historic ties.”

In short, Chicano and ethnic studies formed out of resistance to racism and other forms of exploitation, thus making it very different from the ethnic solidarity sought by white conservatives, and also very different from mainstream high school history classes. It also emerged, in its more sophisticated understandings, as one step towards a more general human liberation. We need to understand the attack on ethnic studies in Arizona in this larger historical and intellectual context—not to mention the political context of Arizona’s intense anti-immigrant sentiments that veer into anti-Mexican racism. In other words, if anti-Mexican racism still exists in Arizona—and it clearly does—then we should understand ethnic studies as an understandable defense mechanism, even if we can’t appreciate its pedagogy in relation to our concepts of history education.

I’m not necessarily advocating for ethnic studies. I think solidarity is in order, but one that cuts across the lines of race and ethnicity. What we need in our current age of disorder is a little class solidarity (which, for a Marxist, is the same as saying human solidarity).