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MLA: Ethnic Studies courses, books are scholarly, not political

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MLA: Ethnic Studies courses, books are scholarly, not political

Recent legislative and policy initiatives in the Tucson Unified School District concern us deeply as teachers and scholars of language and literature.

In 2010, the Arizona state legislature passed HB 2281, which was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer. The bill forbade any school district to include in "its program of instruction any courses or classes ... that promote 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." State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal declared in January 2011 that Tucson's widely admired Mexican American studies program was in violation of HB 2281. The board of the Tucson Unified School District appealed that ruling in June 2011. In December 2011, Judge Lewis Kowal affirmed Huppenthal's decision, saying that the Mexican American studies program had "one or more classes designed primarily for one ethnic group, promoting racial resentment, and advocating ethnic solidarity" and was thus in violation of state law. Penalties for noncompliance established in HB 2281 would have cost the Tucson Unified School District millions of dollars in state aid.

As a result, the district's school board voted 4-1 to shut down the Mexican American studies program. The school board president, Mark Stegeman, took several measures to bring that termination about, the most publicized of which involved the removal of several books from ethnic studies classrooms in Tucson and their sequestration in a storage facility.

That removal, in addition to being objectionable, followed from a series of discriminatory acts by Arizona officials, all of which run against principles that the MLA considers vital. Although Arizona HB 2281 was ostensibly passed to ensure that students would be taught as individuals, we see the law as part of an attack on Mexican American citizens and cultures—including, but not limited to, undocumented immigrants. We are unaware of any similar argument or policy initiative aimed at, for instance, Americans of Irish or Polish descent; no one argues that Irish American or Polish American children who learn about their ethnic heritages in school are promoting racial resentment or ethnic solidarity, even though the history of Irish and Polish immigration in the United States is not free of instances of ethnic discrimination. Furthermore, we contend that the law has been discriminatory in effect, insofar as the superintendent's ruling, the judge's decision, and the school board president's order applied it to target and shut down only Mexican American studies programs. We note that programs in Native American and African American studies seem not to have triggered fears and anxieties among the supporters and enforcers of HB 2281.

We believe that teaching Mexican American children about Mexican American history and heritage is teaching them as individuals — indeed, precisely as the individuals they are. But more important, we believe in teaching all American children about Mexican American history and heritage. We therefore reject the reasoning behind HB 2281 and behind the decisions made by Superintendent Huppenthal, Judge Kowal, and President Stegeman, on two counts. First, we reject the idea that Mexican American studies is a subject "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group." Throughout the United States, and especially in the Southwest, Mexican American studies is an integral part of the study of American identity and history; ideally, every schoolchild should be acquainted with that fact. Second, we reject the idea that Mexican American studies promotes "resentment toward a race or class of people" or advocates "ethnic solidarity." Mexican American studies is a field of inquiry, not a form of propaganda. It is designed to lead to a greater understanding of the histories and cultures of the peoples of the United States, not to any partisan political outcome.

Our beliefs about ethnic studies and about curricular reform generally have been formed by forty years of scholarly research, informed debate, and open-ended discussion. As an organization devoted to the study of language and literature, the MLA is allied with primary and secondary school educators who teach in this field and who participate in the long project of questioning and undoing the biases of the traditional curriculum, which for many years ignored or demeaned the histories and cultures of people deemed "ethnic." We see that project as central to the mission of American education at all levels. As former MLA President Sidonie Smith wrote in her 2010 letter to Gov. Brewer, "ethnic studies curricula have provided important gateways for students to learn about the diversity of heritages in the United States, a key educational goal of the liberal arts education that is the bedrock of American higher education. ... Policies that curtail this vision will weaken the quality of education."

Finally, we see in these actions a threat to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry. To pursue scholarly inquiries into the histories and cultures of the United States, teachers must be free from legislative and judicial interference. Allowing state officials to declare legitimate branches of history and culture out of bounds — to the point of seizing and sequestering books — is inimical to the principles on which the United States was founded. And to students in the Tucson Unified School District, such actions send a far more chilling message than anything they might find in the books that have been removed from their classrooms.

We urge all relevant Arizona officials — Gov. Brewer, Superintendent Huppenthal, Judge Kowal, and President Stegeman — to reconsider these rulings, reverse these decisions, and reaffirm the freedom of inquiry on which an open society must depend.

Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association of America provides opportunities for its members to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends in the academy. MLA members host an annual convention and other meetings, work with related organizations, and sustain one of the finest publishing programs in the humanities. For over a hundred years, members have worked to strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature.

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