Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity History?

As you probably know by now, dear unreaders, I have a thing for documentaries. And since I have a thing for documentaries (and British television) I also have a thing for PBS. I rarely miss an episode of Independent Lens, P.O.V., American Experience, American Masters, or Global Voices even when PBS moves them to ungodly broadcast hours. Thankfully I have access to PBS World which reruns documentaries broadcast on the main PBS channel at more godly hours.

Recently I watched a documentary directed by Erin Isobel McGinnis and Ari Luis Paulos (Beyond the Border) called "Precious Knowledge. McGinnis and Paulos use their camera (the camera as participant observer) to take us viewers into the La Raza/Mexican American Studies classrooms of high schools in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).

"Precious Knowledge", which debuted on Independent Lens in March of 2012 (, begins in struggle and triumph. According to one educational analyst in McGinnis and Paulos speak to studies have shown that an education that gives students a positive sense of self raises student grades and student graduation rates. What has happened in the TUSD since the institution of the La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme in 2002 seems to bear this statement out. Students interviewed for "Precious Knowledge" talk about how Tucson's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme helped them understand who they were, helped them understand where they came from, was more interesting than what they had been learning in school previously, and gave meaning to their school work and their intellectual lives. One parent told of how her son, who had never spoken about school work before, couldn't stop talking about what he was learning in La Raza/Mexican Studies classes. By 2011, claims the TUSD, La Raza/Mexican Studies had helped raise graduation rates for Tucson's Hispanic/Chicano/Chicana students from around 50% to 93%.

Despite the supposed successes of TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies programme not everyone was happy with what they thought was going on in in Tucson's high school La Raza/Mexican Studies classrooms. By the way, I say what they thought was going on in the classrooms because few of La Raza's critics ever actually went to a Mexican Studies classroom to see what was really going on in them. Serendipitously, as it turns out, McGinnis and Paulos were in the midst of filming what was going on in TUSD La Raza classes just as a culture war over illegal immigration and what it means to be an American was cresting once again in Arizona and in the United States. Tucson's La Raza programme was one of the things, it turned out, that concerned many Arizonans already concerned with "illegal" immigration and the impact of Hispanics and others on the nature of "America" itself.

Criticisms of TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme took a number of forms. For Arizona Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme divided rather than united students thanks to its emphasis on ethnic pride and its us (Hispanics) versus them (European colonialists and imperialists) mentality. Horne believed the programme to be dangerous because it emphasised ethnic solidarity rather than good old fashioned American individualism. Others like Republican Arizona Senator (later Horne's successor as Superintendent of Public Instruction) worried that Tucson's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme was filling students minds with hate for the United States by having them read books like Paulo Friere's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed", a book which, he notes, mentions Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Che Guevera, and teaching students to hate America's founding fathers because they were racists. Huppenthal, who was one of the few critics to visit a TUSD La Raza classroom, told the filmmakers that it was simply inappropriate to trash America's heroic founding fathers in a public high school classroom. Others accused La Raza of inculcating revolution in Tucson students. One critic of the programme goes so far to claim that the brown shirts, masks, and sunglasses some student wear during protests over the attempt by critics to make La Raza illegal, are the kit of revolutionaries. Others accused La Raza of being the racist stepchild of the KKK. La Raza teachers, students, and advocates responded by claiming that what the programme was actually teaching was critical thinking, thinking about all systems of oppression including racism, sexism, and classism, history with warts and all, and social justice.

In one way the critics of TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies programme do have it right. Like so much history what seems to be going on in Tucson's Mexican Studies classrooms is vanity history, history, in other words for social solidarity, for pride in identity, and for pride in community. In truth, much of what passes for history is and has long been vanity history. That is why most of those who teach and study Jewish history are Jews, most of those who teach and research Mennonite history are Mennonites, most of those who teach and study Mormon history are Mormons, most of those who teach and research worker's history are sympathetic toward worker's movements, and most of those who teach and study American history are Americans. History has long had a clan, tribal, ethnic, or nationalistic pride aspect to it, something reflected in the very ways we categorise history into little boxes like American history and World history and in the way we teach history.

It turns out that the critics of Tucson's La Raza as vanity history are less interested in the sociology of knowledge, however, and have rather substantial vanity motes in their own eyes. Huppenthal's teach the founding fathers as heroes history is whitewhashed and amnesiac vanity history. Horne's notion that American history should be taught to emphasise individualism rather than group solidarity is amnesia history. The history both Huppenthal and Horne prefer is as much a group solidarity history as that as TUSD's La Raza. It is a yeah, rah America is wonderful version of American history. And it is an American history with all of the racial, classist, and sexist blemishes that have characterised American history (these traits are not, by the way, a monopoly of US history) taken out. It is, of course, hard not to read Horne's and Huppenthal's whitewashed White man's history in the context of the wider xenophobia sweeping across Arizona and the US today.

"Precious Knowledge" ends in tragedy and hope. It ends with Arizona's state legislature passing bills mandating vigourous action against illegal immigrants and those who hire them and the shutting down of Arizona's ethnic studies programmes including Tucson's La Raza. But all, the documentary suggests, is not lost. One of the students the documentary has focused on throughout its 50 plus minutes is admitted to the University of Arizona, something she attributes, in part, to La Raza. The final shot of the film depicts people marching in the street in opposition to Arizona's immigration and ethnic studies bills over which plays a recording of the love yourself and love others mantra that was chanted at the beginning of one of the La Raza classes in one of Tucson's Unifed School District high school's. Proponents of Tucson's Mexican Studies programme may have, the film seems to be suggesting, lost the battle but they have not yet lost the war. The next battle in the ethnic studies war, by the way, may be at the college and university level since, according to reports in the press, Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction John Uppenthal now blames the "toxic" ethnic pride "indoctrination" he found in Tucson's high schools the result on the indoctrination of teachers in university Mexican Studies programmes throughout the state of Arizona ( Welcome back to politically correct McCarthyland.

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