My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 23, 2012: Mexican American Studies

Why American Studiers should be paying particularly close and committed attention to what’s happening with Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program.

There are plenty of reasons for any American, or human, to be upset with what has happened in Arizona (and specifically Tucson) over the last year or so; in fact each subsequent event and story has seemingly amplified the level of ridiculous and upsetting news. Last May the state’s legislature passed and its governor signed into law HB 2281, a law that bans the state’s schools from “teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment, or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating pupils as individuals.” Earlier this month, as the law went into effect, the authorities decided to focus its first effects on Tucson’s famous and award-winning Mexican American Studies program, and they’ve done a good deal more than just cut funding for the program or the like—they’ve forced teachers to remove all materials from their classrooms, banned numerous books and authors entirely, and otherwise directly attacked the program and its participants. And last week, when students at Cholla High School marches to the program’s headquarters in protest—an action that would seem worth celebrating whatever one’s stance on the program—they were not only met with anger, but punished for their action by being forced to perform janitorial duties at their school.

I could easily write the rest of this post, and in fact a whole series of posts, on just how un-American, in the most profound sense of the (controversial I know) phrase, those latter two actions—banning books and punishing students for social protest and activism—are. But I hope and believe that no one reading this post would disagree with those sentiments. Moreover, while those actions are inarguably extreme and divisive, it is I would argue in fact the opening salvo in this series of events, the passage of HB 2281, that represents the most fundamentally and troublingly un-American action of all. In the subsequent posts this week, I will make the case for many of the moments, figures, and ways in which Mexican American Studies is inseparable from American Studies, the aspects of our national community, history, story, and identity that cannot be understood or narrated without the inclusion of Mexican American Studies.

Yet even if we leave aside that specific focus and kind of program, as of course the original law did, I would likewise argue that the law’s own language is profoundly disconnected from American identity. That’s true in a cause and effect way, to be sure—the idea that classes “designed for students of a particular ethnic group” will lead, as the sentence’s grammar implies, to “resentment” or the valuing of “ethnic solidarity over” individual identity, is nonsensically disconnected from the long sweep of American history, in which individuals have formed and maintained connections with both their particular groups and cultures and at the same time with the broader nation around them (one composed of course of other individuals doing the same). But it’s even more inaccurate to argue, as the law explicitly does, that programs like Tucson’s are “designed for students of a particular ethnic group”—quite the contrary, I believe that ethnic studies programs are designed for all American students, both those with connections to the groups in question and those outside of them; that’s important if we define America as composed of a set of different ethnic groups and communities, and even more crucial if we define it (as I do) as composed ultimately of the cross-cultural encounters and transformations between and across those communities.

Again, there are all sorts of specific arguments in favor of Tucson’s program, and of course the place of Mexican American Studies in American Studies and identity. I’ll try to make a few of them for the rest of this week. But the law is even more sweeping, and more sweepingly un-American, than that, and should likewise be responded to in those broad terms. More tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

1/23 Memory Day nominee: Gertrude Belle Elion, the Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and chemist who was the daughter of two Jewish immigrants and one of America’s most pioneering female scientists, creating her own career and opportunities as well as much of the field of modern medical research.

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