This past May, the Arizona State Legislature passed a law that controls the content of Ethnic Studies courses in public schools. Ethnic Studies focus on the histories and experiences of different ethnic and racial groups within the United States from their own perspectives. The law contains a clause that it will not “restrict or prohibit classes or courses for Native American pupils that are required to comply with federal law.” This has led some people to believe that the bill does not affect or even that it protects Native American courses and perspectives.
I believe this is a misinterpretation. And I believe our communities must pay attention to this law because it reflects larger political trends nationwide. In other states, such as Texas, lawmakers and politically appointed State Boards of Education are trying to control the content taught in classrooms.
Arizona’s House Bill 2281 was written in response to concerns about the La Raza (Mexican American) Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District. This program teaches students about the Mexican American experience, including the history of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the U.S. – Mexican War as examples of U.S. imperialism.
The program serves about three percent of students in that district, and most of them are Mexican American. Although former Gov. Janet Napolitano had vetoed similar bills under her watch, current Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281into law.
The bill not only reflects the current political climate in Arizona. It also is a reminder that history is much more than just a story of people and events in a vacuum. These histories have their own political context, and the question remains: Who has the power to determine whose history matters?
By attacking the La Raza program, the Arizona legislators are attempting to control what is taught in K-12 classrooms. House Bill 2281 “finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.”
The law bans classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States; promotes resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
Tom Horne, superintendent of Public Instruction and one of the law’s strongest proponents, argues that such classes divide students by race and promote resentment. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception. With such attitudes, I question who is going to determine what is resentment or hate of others.
The bill’s supporters assume that Ethnic Studies courses present a biased history. This argument does not acknowledge that the standard curriculum already is biased. Teachers, administrators, and policy makers have chosen a particular curriculum for the schools. Ethnic Studies focus on the recovery of unheard voices in American history. Purposefully excluding these histories creates a further bias in the American history public school curriculum and teaches students that certain perspectives and experiences are more valid than others.
I am disturbed that much of the American history and literature taught in our classrooms excludes the histories of many people in this country, particularly the experiences of American Indians. The loss or devaluing of American Indian culture and history is a continued theme in the American Indian experience. Many students who take my Introduction to American Indian Studies course, for example, have little or no knowledge or understanding of American Indian history. They possess varying misconceptions about American Indians, and many only know that a reservation is nearby because of the casino.
As a Native scholar, I am reminded of the boarding schools and assimilation views of earlier periods in Indian education: Control the curriculum (the student’s understandings), teach one history that glorifies and justifies the stealing of tribal lands, and focus the pupil away from their communities toward individualism.
To paraphrase assimilationist Richard Henry Pratt, the Arizona law kills the history to save the pupil. The legislature is attempting to disrupt cultural and historical understandings of ourselves to protect particular notions of American history and society. This law seeks to tear down cultural pride and identity.
In order to allow groups to interact equally, students need to have equal understanding of who they are and where they come from. The current education system does not do this. Thus the high school Ethnic Studies program in Tucson is essential to giving students a reason to succeed.
Students perform better when they see the relevance of their studies, when it relates to their lives and builds selfesteem.
When we see high dropout rates and low academic performance skills, we should look for ways to engage and support students of all ethnic groups instead of taking away or devaluing their histories. Ethnic Studies is one way to provide such an environment for all students of all races.
Dr. Myla Vicenti Carpio is an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. She is a citizen of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and from Laguna and Isleta Pueblos in New Mexico.