Ever since I read Stuart Chase’s “The Tyranny of Words” as an undergraduate I have been obsessed with the meaning of words, although I must admit that S.I. Hayakawa’s irrationality while President of San Francisco State College and his turn to the far right almost killed my interest in semantics.
Today we have entered the age where politicians and academicians roll their own meanings, making words worthless. This has resurfaced the need for reasonable people to define words, and to emphasize that that words really matter.
That is why I am so perturbed by what is happening in the Tucson Unified School District, where they are talking about replacing the highly successful Mexican Studies program with a Multi-Cultural program as if a change in names matters. This misdeed distorts the meaning of words.
This is especially true because the district is crassly changing word meanings to adjust its actions to the racism of Tea Party types in the state. The school district leaders are yielding to the xenophobia fanned by Arizona Superintendent of Instruction John Huppenthal and Attorney General Tom Horne who claim that the word Mexican-American is un-American. Horne on occasion has gone on record as saying that the Tucson MAS program is part of a Chicano conspiracy to re-take the Southwest.
Because the TUSD and a timorous school board are afraid to challenge state’s right wing zealots led by Tea Party “intellectuals” they capitulated and dismantled MAS. They agreed to forget about the truth, and used the pretext that they were doing it because HB 2281 would take away funds if they did not comply. It did not seem to matter that the funds to operate the ethnic studies programs came from the federal government as part of a desegregation plan.
Underlying the paranoia of Horne and, for that matter, Mark Stegeman, Alex Sugiyama and Tea Party member Michael Hicks is fear of the growing Mexican American population that makes up 43 percent of the state’s public school students and a majority of the TUSD. This has led them to the same idiocy expressed by Horne. They actually believe that Mexican American Studies is part of an international conspiracy to overthrow the government.
For those of us who want definitions, it smacks of an irrationality similar to that of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the aftermath of World War II. All that is missing are loyalty oaths and the hearings.
The role of people such as myself in surviving in this quagmire of meaningless words is to straighten out the impreciseness. For communication to take place words have to communicate a common sense or meaning, which in the case of Arizona is almost impossible.
What concerns me about the capitulation of the TUSD Board of Education is that it allows right-wing ideologues to erase the Truth to the point that we cannot imagine what is perfect or imperfect – obfuscating reality.
What is more tragic is that some educators are going along with it. They rationalize that they can play the system and allow the district to change the program’s name from MAS to multicultural studies. They fail to consider the history of the formation of multicultural education and Mexican American Studies, which is inherently different. Just by changing the color of a program to look like the rainbow does not make it so.
Multiculturalism is broader than Mexican American or ethnic studies programs that include Black, Asian-American and Native American Studies. Multicultural education covers educational strategies and materials aimed at assisting teachers to respond to issues created by changing student demographics. It believes in pluralism: teaching about the histories, cultures, and contributions of diverse groups.
The mission statement of the Nation’s Foremost Multicultural Education Organization (NAME) reads, “Multicultural education is a philosophical concept built on the ideals of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity as acknowledged in various documents, such as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, constitutions of South Africa and the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.” Presently its president is Dr. Christine Sleeter of California State University–Monterey Bay – a respected scholar.
I have worked with multiculturalists since the 1970s, although the national organization dates back to the 1990s. They have produced a hefty body of literature on cultural differences and pluralism. Many of the early scholars were involved in developing programs on race and ethnicity. University of Washington Professor of Education James A. Banks and Brown University Professor Evelyn Hu-de Hart are among these pioneers.
Generally speaking the programs are small, and, for the most part, not influential within the academy. Most are associated with the Schools of Education and involved in teacher training. And I do not know of a single multi-cultural program that’s main mission is mass education.
In my opinion, the association with schools of education has pluses and minuses. The pluses are the clear purpose and intentions of its innovators which are compatible with that of the field of education. The minuses begin with the fact that Education courses at most university campuses are relegated to teaching non-content courses which is short hand for saying that they cannot teach courses in the disciplines, i.e., the History of the Chicana/o. Most are involved in graduate education and from my vantage point their real strength is in the development of theoretical models.
The multiculturalists have shrewdly shielded themselves. They very subtly wave the flag, wrapping themselves around the Declaration of Independence and the pursuit of democracy. They are politically nonthreatening to white faculty members.
Mexican American Studies (AKA Chicana/o Studies) are a product of the 1960s. From the very beginning the Mission Statement of the National Association for Chicana/Chicano Studies (NACCS) said it was an advocate for the Mexican American community in things related to curriculum and student and faculty outreach.
The purpose of CHS differed from multicultural education. The latter focused on theory and on pedagogy to bring about a pluralist society whereas CHS like Black and Native American Studies focused on mass education. Programs were designed to give greater access to students of their particular racial and ethnic group and to teach them the skills to survive in higher education.
CHS developed an interdisciplinary course of study to achieve this goal. It believed that students of all colors should know about Mexican Americans. The reality is that Latinos are a growing sector of society and the best way to fight racism is not only through theory but for other groups to know about Mexican Americans.
At California State University Northridge, we used the program to give the Latino community visibility and a voice within the university. In the 1990s we gave up teaching lines to help launch a Central American Studies program in recognition of the fact that Central Americans are growing demographically, and that departmental status gives them a voice in the academy.
Even so, we have had to fight the university, which has not hired a sufficient number of Mexican American professors in other departments. We have been at odds with some of the multiculturalists who want to teach multicultural classes in lieu of CHS courses in General Education and Liberal Arts.
It is not that we object to others teaching about Latinos, it just doesn’t make sense to have one 3 unit class replace three 3 unit classes in CHS, Pan African and Asian Studies. It becomes ludicrous when you consider that over 75 percent of the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District students is Latino (85 percent of who are of Mexican extraction).
In sum, multiculturalism is much broader than CHS/MAS. The latter is a pedagogy that focuses on Latino students and motivates them with courses relevant to the students’ experiences. It is aimed at making them actors in the world that they live in. Like my friends used to say in Yiddish, you have to feel like a mensh, a good person, in your eyes and in the eyes of others.
Despite the resistance to MAS, there are departments, centers and programs nationally, most probably in greater numbers than multicultural programs. CHS has a national organization and several academic journals, mostly dedicated to the production of new knowledge.
The TUSD program was unique, it was the only one that was developed at the K-12 level. The State of Arizona paid over $112,000 for an audit from the respected Cambium Learning, Inc. that absolved the MAS program of charges of un-Americanism and found it to be highly successful. However, after commissioning the study, the state superintendent of instruction arbitrarily concluded that he did not believe it and pressured the TUSD to ban books including Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The charade gets ridiculous. Tucson Superintendent John Pedicone says that they did not ban the books; he just had them removed and forbade teachers from using them.
Now, the district says trust us. We are going to give you something better than MAS, a multicultural program that severs focus on the education of Mexican Americans. They will share space with other groups that are also deserving of space and who up to this point have had their own programs. The mission is no longer exclusively mass education for Mexican Americans.
Words are tyrannical if you want them to mean something. Otherwise do what Arizona wants to do and wipe out the memory of selected communities. But then don’t be surprised if the message to students is that it is bad to be a Mexican.
Depositions begin this week in the case against HB 2281. You can donate by clicking on to http://saveethnicstudies.org/ . We are run entirely by volunteers; however, depositions are expensive. Please donate at least $5 a month.
Depositions have started in the case against Sean Arce and José González. Four hours of depositions were taken of both Arce and Gonzalez. Our side deposed Ward this past week. Please donate: https://www.wepay.com/donations/144408
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