Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Arizona 1070; Mississippi 2178

I'm curious about Arizona's most recent legislative controversy, Senate Bill 1070 which bans ethnic studies programs which, "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government," "resentment toward a race or class of people", "appear to be designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals."

I guess, if that is the upshot and the effect of the law, it may be something substantial - especially if there really is a curriculum that that 'promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government'. It's been a long time since I was a student in a public school, but if that's what's being taught then there really is a problem!

According to an Arizona Republic editorial, "...the ethnic-studies ban "targets" minorities only in the sense that it seeks to defend a vulnerable, largely immigrant population in Tucson against a band of politically radical opportunists that blatantly seeks to convert students into activists for their far-left cause."

Apparently there have been speakers and/or literature used without being given context by trained teachers - or the teachers or the context not trusted by public and elected officials. If, in Arizona, teachers, guest speakers are recruiting youth to political movements of any political ideology then it is indeed a problem, no matter if that ideology is espoused by 'La Raza' or the John Birch Society.

But I also have a problem if the idea of 'ethnic studies is merely feared to promote 'resentment of a race'. There's something wrong indeed if the reason why Arizona enacted such a law is because the dominant culture doesn't want to be made uncomfortable or guilty, that's something else altogether.

It's at this point I have to hail the bravery of Mississippi state public schools whose Civil Rights curriculum for grades k-12, which appears to be inclusive and progressive.

"Advocacy groups such as the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and Washington-based Teaching for Change are preparing to train Mississippi teachers to tell the "untold story" of the civil rights struggle to the nearly half million students in the state's public schools."

""Now more than ever we are engaged in national debates about race and so much of those debates are impoverished in their understanding of history," said Susan Glissen of the Winter Institute. "We want to emphasize the grass-roots nature of civil rights and the institution of racism.""

"The program is the outgrowth of a law passed in 2006 by the Legislature. The state moves forward with statewide implementation in the 2010-2011 school year, despite an unsuccessful legislative effort to eliminate the plan this year."

For Mississippi to mandate such a course throughout its system is pretty courageous. It has to explore historically significant and fresh events such as the murders of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers and the three SNCC workers, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.

It can also be intensely personal for some students. In many families in the south, black and white, issues of the segregation, violence and hatred of that era are simply not discussed.

In an elective course of study similar to what has been mandated by the Mississippi legislature has mandated there is a poignant incident in which one student confronts the complicity and contradictions within her own family:

"For Sarah Rowley, 17, the class has been a watershed. Initially she saw it as "an easy grade," but quickly realized she was wrong. Much of the class centers on gathering oral narratives from residents who grew up in a radically different McComb, a place where inequality and violence was a part of life. In the middle of one interview at the home of Lillie Mae Cartstarphen, Sarah asked an innocent question about the role of law enforcement during that time."

"Sarah's grandfather had been a McComb policeman and, later, chief of police during the 1960s. In her family's eyes, he was a hero. But, says Sarah, her voice trembling as she recounts the answer: "[Ms. Cartstarphen] said you couldn't trust policemen, that they were just as involved as the KKK. Even now, it makes me want to cry. I thought, 'I have to regain my composure. I can't let this interfere with what I'm here to do.' But I felt like I was in a tug of war. Here is this woman telling me this, but my family … they're such good people. What do I do?""

"She talked to Malone and to her father. She prayed. Eventually, Sarah says, she made peace with the legacy of a man struggling to keep his job, feed his family, and survive in a troubled era. She's certain he'd make different choices if he were alive today."

Difficult as this is, it is bravery of Mississippi to own its history in ways that are educational, healing and redemptive is laudatory. It would have been much easier for legislators and educators to allow public policy and academics to get subsumed in standardized testing and arcane data management.

Like every other state, its not always the unwillingness of teachers to teach something fresh and relevant, "It's not that teachers haven't wanted to teach civil rights, though he [curriculum specialist Chauncy Spears] admits that's probably the case in some places. It's more a symptom of a nationwide problem, an educational stricture some say is an unwelcome byproduct of the No Child Left Behind Act: Teaching to the test. As the stakes become higher, the curriculum narrows."

"In some schools, Spears says, there's such intense pressure to rectify faltering math and reading scores that everything else is "pretty much ignored.""

Teachers won't just be winging the program, the law "...mandates all kindergartners to 12th-graders to be exposed to civil rights education. In the younger grades, students will read books such as "I Love My Hair!" as a way to discuss concepts like racial differences in skin complexion and hair texture. Later grades will delve more deeply into how ordinary citizens shaped the civil rights movement and the long-term effects those changes had upon the nation."

"Mr. Spears says the new curriculum is being taught this year in 10 pilot programs. Teacher workshops [will be] taught by the state Department of Education in conjunction with the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University, Teaching for Change in Washington, and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi."

There appear to be stark contrasts between Mississippi Bill 2178 and the ethnic studies curriculum (or at least what they are purported to have become) and what Arizona Bill 1070 is supposed to correct. But what the controversy in both states show, is that we need to figure out how to educate our children and one another about the rich diversity of the contributions that have made America great.

Failure to do so creates extremists on either end of the spectrum.


Anonymous said...

Do not ethnic studies promote racism? It must depend on the meaning of racism. To me,the heart of racism is an ethnic pride promoted by "ethnic studies" which are for the most part a waste of valuable academic time

Gerald Britt said...

No, ethnic studies do not promote racism.

How is it 'racism' to know the people of your own heritage who have contributed to America's greatness? How is it 'racism' to know that the stereotypes to which you have been subjected are not true? How is it 'racism' to know the oppression, bigotry and prejudice to which your forefathers have been subjected and which they have overcome? How is it 'racism' to know the alliances with people of other races who have trancscended to the bigotry they were taught and who sacrificed their fortunes, their well being, their very lives to make sure that our country lived up to its lofty promises?
How is it 'racism' and a waste of time to teach that America's history is not an endless succession of romantic myths, but also a series of tragic missteps overwhich time has enabled us to triumph and over which we are still seeking victory in an effort to demonstrate to the rest of the world that equality and justice are not concepts, but concrete realities that all of humanity can enjoy.

A 'waste of valuable academic time'?! I would suggest that learning anything else without these things is the greatest waste of academic time.

Perhaps you saw reflected in all of your studies in history and social studies, people who looked like you and had similar backgrounds as yours. But in my school days, the names of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Walter White or black Union soldiers (or Confederate soldiers) were never mentioned. The contributions of George Washington Carver were never taught to us.

I would suggest that you think again about what it means to be truly educated. The idea that America evolved as some kind of homogeneous melting pot of which slavery, segregation, oppression of minorities and were anamolies, is simply not true and lead to erroneous conclusions, such as the ones you have drawn.