Review: Precious Knowledge on PBS Independent Lens

This week, PBS’ Independent Lens turns toward the embattled (and currently abolished) Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. As a Tucson-area educator, this story was of local and professional interest to me. At the start of the hour-long documentary, we are told that high school dropout rates for Mexican American students are 50% nationwide, the highest of any minority group. In 1997, the Tucson Unified School District approved an ethnic studies curriculum as a way of engaging students and lowering dropout rates. The program appeared to be a success, with over 90% of students in ethnic studies electives graduating, according to a study conducted over the course of six years. Students interviewed for the film, many of them Latino students from underprivileged backgrounds, but some white and minority students as well, express admiration for the program. We are also told that courses were created dealing with Mexican-American studies, Pan-Asian studies, and African-American studies, and all of these courses were available to students of all races.

Tom Horne: Pretty sly, for a white guy

So why did these courses come under fire? Former Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne argued that these courses were anti-American. His basic arguments, as portrayed in the film, are vague. He says that courses were teaching students to think collectively and not as individuals, which is apparently “just not what we do in this country.” More importantly, he also claims that these classes were anti-American, teaching students to “hate America.”

Initiatives aimed at breaking up the ethnic studies curriculum initially failed under Gov. Janet Napolitano, but under Gov. Jan Brewer and with the support of Former Arizona Senate leader Russell Pearce, House Bill 2281 passed in 2010. Courses in Mexican-American Studies in TUSD have ended, for now, but a federal court challenge is ongoing that may eventually bring classes back.

What strikes me about this entire debate, as portrayed in the film, is that there was a lack of understanding and dialogue about the courses. Tom Horne never attended an ethnic studies class, despite being invited. Neither did school board member Michael Hicks, who notoriously said on The Daily Show, “I base my thoughts on hearsay from others.” (Seriously?) In the absence of actual knowledge about the curriculum, Arizona legislators considering the bill make such enlightened statements as, “I looked at the citations of this book and saw Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara.” Looked at the citations? I’m pretty sure a lot of mainstream history texts probably cite Marx as well. Heck, back in New York in the public college I attended, Marx was required reading as part of the undergraduate humanities sequence. But something that wouldn’t have caused a moment’s uproar in New York is apparently an outrage in Arizona.

To his credit, John Huppenthal (later to replace Tom Horne as superintendent) is shown in the movie visiting a class and talking to students. While there was civility on both sides in the classroom, what I saw in these meetings was an air of mutual distrust. By this time, with protests by TUSD students already taking place and attracting major media attention, and in the wake of the passage of SB1070, it was too little too late to hope that a productive dialogue might have taken place. In fact, footage from Arizona legislative debates on HB2281 show Huppenthal presenting his experience in the classroom in a negative light and using a comment made by a teacher in conversation–not as part of a classroom lesson–to support his view that the classes are anti-American. (Incidentally, the comment was about Benjamin Franklin and some racist views he expressed. Huppenthal seems to be making the point that it’s not cool to call a founding father a racist. I wonder if he knows that Jefferson owned slaves. And Franklin had at least one child out of wedlock. And none of them were fans of women’s rights. Just saying.)

The filmmakers’ sympathies here are clearly with the TUSD students, and as a result the lens is a bit soft on them at times. Yes, they got a raw deal, but some of their methods of dealing with the problem–wearing faux military uniforms or invading school board meetings and chaining themselves to chairs–didn’t really help their cause. Ultimately, though, the kids have clearly been the biggest losers in this debate. They can’t design their own curricula or teach themselves, so someone needs to have their best interest at heart. What amazed me about this documentary is that at no point did state education officials, local administrators, and teachers sit down and say, “We have a problem with these classes, but kids are succeeding. Can this program be reformed in a way that preserves the benefits and saves everyone face?” What happened instead was combativeness and bad feelings on all sides. And, unsurprisingly, nothing got resolved to the satisfaction of anyone.

Today, Russell Pearce is out of office after being recalled. Tom Horne is under investigation for campaign finance law violations. Mexican-American Studies classes have been disbanded and teachers reassigned (though, surprisingly, Pan-Asian and African-American studies classes have come under no scrutiny and continue as they did before). And supporters of ethnic studies have taken their fight to court. This show left me wondering (again): Has anyone won this fight? It seems that, in the process of getting rid of “un-American” classes, ethnic studies opponents have only encouraged students to rebel and reinforced the sense of collective identity that they found so objectionable. When you single out and disband classes focusing on one group’s heritage and history, but leave other groups alone, what kind of message do you think you’re sending? I came away seeing the disbanding of MAS classes as a short-term win, but a long-term loss. Any time that the people in power make a decision that sends students the message that school doesn’t represent them, doesn’t want them, or doesn’t care about their levels of engagement or success, the future is in danger.

*Precious Knowledge airs this week on Independent Lens on PBS. Check your listings for showtimes.


3 thoughts on “Review: Precious Knowledge on PBS Independent Lens

  1. The same ole story. People with no knowledge of the situation making the judgement calls and instead of looking for information to make a sound decision going in with minds made up. That program was a gonner from the time they found one good reason because they planned it all along. So sad for the kid, but we will pay in the end. Matter is not destroyed, it just changes forms and sometimes those forms come back ugly.

  2. That’s a good article. I don’t necessarily support the ‘white as bad guy’ view of things (well, I”m white) but I don’t think legislators should enforce the dominant ideology either. We’ve had the same thing here in Oz with our former PM campaigning against the ‘black armband’ view of history – never mind that our kids should know that white invaders systematically killed aboriginals, in the past.

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