Saturday, February 04, 2012

Tucson Teach-In

My favorite librarian and I lived in Arizona from 1990 to 1994 and in many ways it was the best place we ever lived. We had terrific friends there, we were learning a lot in graduate school, the food was terrific, the weather was warm, the sky a pleasant shade of blue all the time, and it was cheap. We had no money because we were graduate students, but we paid little rent because the S & L crisis had ravaged the housing market and food was grown nearby. We also did not pay much for entertainment, because we were students and because entertainment meant either attending a lecture or taking a hike in the beautiful deserts and mountains that surround the city.

We were sad to leave and often longed to go back. This diminished as our Arizona friends moved elsewhere or passed away or both, but we still had a great fondness for the place with so many great memories. The past few years, however, have made it difficult to muster much nostalgia, as the politics of fear and hate seem to have made a mighty comeback. Before our time, in the 1980s, Arizona was consumed with needless racial strife, becoming, for example, the last holdout against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Arizona today, though, makes the Ev Mecham period seem downright genteel.

The latest indignity is a law passed last spring that bans ethnic studies in schools. The law went into effect yesterday, and one of its authors recently defended it by saying that it would reduce racial barriers. The ruling that ended Mexican Studies in Tucson schools asserts that "people are individuals, not exemplars of racial groups," as if the two categories were mutually exclusive. I am an individual, but I can be understood fully only in the context of many groups to which I belong. To insist that ethnic or racial perspectives do not exist is to reinforce the privilege enjoyed by whatever ethnic or racial perspectives have already dominated public discourse.

In preparation for the law going into effect yesterday, a number of books were removed from classrooms -- with students and teachers present. Teachers have been forbidden not only to teach certain ideas to their students, but also from discussing the entire matter with anybody else. The First Amendment, in other words, has been suspended.

Anderson Cooper examines the issue in an interview with one of the key proponents of the restrictions, Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne, and Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, who refutes some of Horne's more implausible claims. For good measure, Cooper includes a clip of one of my three favorite Republicans at the moment -- California Gov. Schwarzenegger -- openly mocking the string of race-driven laws in his neighboring state.

On the first day of the ban, I read several passages from one of the banned books, The House on Mango Street. I did so because the book illustrates many of the concepts that the future teachers in my class will need to teach as geographers. This was part of a campus-wide and nation-wide teach-in, as educators far from Arizona recognize the importance of this case.

The site is hosting a petition drive that asks the TUSD school return the banned books to the classrooms. I also wrote individually to the TUSD Communications Officer, and received a copy of the district's press release in reply. The board's position is that no book banning has taken place, but it admits that books have been removed from classrooms and are available in school libraries. According to the American Library Association, this constitutes a book ban. No matches were involved, but the freedom to read has still been abridged, as has the ability for teachers to teach.

I subsequently wrote the following to Governor Brewer, though I doubt she will be much worried about my thoughts:

I enjoyed living in Arizona from 1990 to 1994, when I earned my doctorate in geography and Latin American Area Studies at the University of Arizona; I also worked as a substitute in the Amphitheater schools. I benefited greatly from learning, teaching, and living in a Tucson's rich, multicultural environment. I draw on that experience now in my own teaching and in my enjoyment of music, food, and other manifestations of Latino culture with which I became most familiar while living in Arizona.

I am shocked and saddened by the current turn of events, in which bigotry is now driving curriculum. As in Orwell's 1984, the official discourse is one in which words are divorced from their true meanings, so that the oppressed are characterized as oppressors, and vice-versa. But nobody is fooled, and Arizona continues to marginalize itself further from the mainstream.

I hope that you will take measures to help return Arizona to the kind of place that people -- other than the most narrow-minded -- would enjoy visiting or residing.

Arizona is the current battleground, but we should be clear that in the "Land of the Free" many consider themselves free to limit what other people read. This map of recent book challenges produced by the American Library Association is far from complete, but it does suggest that vigilance is warranted wherever we live and teach. Readers can learn more about how to exercise that vigilance from the Banned Books Week MaxGuide, produced by my very own favorite librarian, or from her annual BBW display.

A final word from Steven Colbert, who proves that imitation is the greatest form of mockery.

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