Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stanley Fish Doesn't Understand Arizona

In his recent New York Times editorial, Arizona: The Gift That Keeps on Giving, Stanley Fish criticizes both the Tucson Unified School District and the Arizona legislature. Recently,  the AZ legislature passed HB2281, a bill that bans ethnic studies from public schools because it claims that ethnic studies promote "ethnic chauvinism." The bill:
"Prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that:
Ø        Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
Ø        Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
Ø        Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
Ø Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

Fish cites TUSD's Mexican-American Studies program's statement that they follow Paulo Freire's Social Justice Education Model and criticizes the program's theoretical grounding in Freire because he claims it politicizes the classroom. Fish writes:
"If the department is serious about this (and we must assume that it is), then there is something for the citizens of Arizona to be concerned about. The concern is not ethnic studies per se — a perfectly respectable topic of discussion and research involving the disciplines of history, philosophy, sociology, medicine, economics, literature, public policy and art, among others. The concern is ethnic studies as a stalking horse or Trojan horse of a political agenda, even if the agenda bears the high-sounding name of social justice."

Fish states that classrooms should not be political. The idea is that teachers present information and students have the option to question social hegemony based on that information, but teachers should not encourage students to actively work against the hegemonic structure. He then goes on to criticize the legislature for attacking all of ethnic studies rather than just demanding that TUSD and other such programs are depoliticized.

The problem with Fish's argument is really twofold, but certainly interconnected. Not once does he mention that what TUSD's Ethnic Studies Program is reacting to is actual, not nebulous or theoretical, oppression. In Arizona, people from all over the Latin American world, but most specifically Mexico, face the constant presence of discrimination or racial prejudice. Some people try to make a distinction between "legal" and "illegal" people of Mexican or Latin American descent, but that distinction cannot have a significant impact on how Mexican and Latino students conceptualize their place in Arizona or America. They see constant hostility directed toward people who look like them, speak their language, share their customs, share their history, live in their communities, and are often related to them. The hated "illegal" could be their uncle, their mother, their friend, or them. As Fish criticizes the school for teaching students to think politically about their position in society and about hegemony, he seems to be describing a school teaching such things in an environment that isn't defined by racism, hostility, and discrimination. It might seem wrong for a teacher in a predominantly white, central Massachusetts school to try to politicize the classroom. In most instances, that interferes with the students' abilities to create their own identities. However, in Arizona where Mexican and other Latino students are treated like second class citizens that are guilty of fostering a hated and un-American culture, the reality is that these students need to be taught to understand the ideology and social structure here that supports those racist views. Otherwise, they'll believe they are what the hegemony says they are. Freire's model of hegemony is real and it's here in Arizona. His model of using education to counteract the power of hegemony is real and here too. We're not talking pedagogy - we're talking reality.

As for Fish's idea that the legislature should have only stopped the political aspect of TUSD's program, that ignores who the legislature is and what they do to such an degree that it's ridiculous. The legislature is part of the problem. Most of them were elected primarily because they are racist against Mexicans. Tom Horne, the school superintendent, knows absolutely nothing about education, but he said he'd stop bilingual education, so he was elected. The people controlling the AZ legislature are racist and are one of the reasons why TUSD needs to educate Mexican students and other students about how to live in a racist environment; they're the reason why the ethnic studies program is political, so why should they stop it from being political?

I think it's safe to say that Stanley Fish knows nothing about Arizona. It's like he's read and talked about theoretical oppression and hegemony for so long that he's unable to recognize the real thing and understand what real people need to do under those circumstances.

1 comment:

Jennifer Lowe said...

Every time I read this headline I think of Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck, saying to John Mahoney, "What you don't know about women, is a lot." The same could be said for Stanley and AZ, methinks. (Sure would love to teach at that particular school, though! I think they're CES.)