Mexican American Studies: Bad Ban Or Bad Class?

In Arizona, the Tucson Unified School District governing board recently voted to suspend the controversial Mexican American studies program. The move came after the state superintendent John Huppenthal deemed the program in violation of a state law banning, among other things, classes that promote resentment toward a race or class. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, does your girl like her bedroom in princessy pink and purple? Then how about her Legos? The Danish toymaker says it wants to make its products appealing to the other 50 percent of the world's children, but now some online activists in the U.S. are saying enough with the pink already. We'll hear from those activists later and we want to hear from you about this. We'll talk about that later in the program.

But first, we have an interview on another hot button issue, which is how and whether so-called ethnic studies should be taught. To have that conversation, we have invited the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona, John Huppenthal. We happened to catch up with him here in Washington, D.C., where he is on business, but he is at the center of a big story we've been following in his home state.

There the governing board of the Tucson School District recently voted to scrap a controversial Mexican-American studies program. They were facing millions of dollars in financial penalties if they failed to do so.

Mr. Huppenthal determined that Tucson's Mexican-American studies program violated a state law, a law that he helped write, by the way, that bans courses that, quote, "encourage resentment toward a race or class of people," unquote, and are designed primarily for one ethnic group.

We've spoken about the issue on the program before, but now we're pleased to have with us the superintendent. Mr. Huppenthal, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOHN HUPPENTHAL: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the law. As we mentioned, you helped write it when you were in the state senate in conjunction with your predecessor as school superintendent, Tom Cooper. Now, I just want to clarify one thing about the origin of this. Is it true, as has been reported, that the genesis of this was that a Republican official was treated rudely when she appeared before a group of students and that the behavior of the students, which by all accounts was rude, I mean she was interrupted and, you know - that there was a feeling that somehow this was motivated by what they were being taught - is that true?

HUPPENTHAL: I think that's a little bit of an oversimplification. It was also based on the information that was flowing out of the Mexican-American studies classes in the Tucson Unified School District. It was also based on a concern about the failure of the Tucson Unified School District to provide a good education to low income Hispanic children, of which they had a large group.

It was also based on concerns that they were getting large amounts of money, spending a lot more per student, and they were getting these below average gains for those students that were most in need of greater academic gains.

So it was just this whole conclusion of things that things weren't going right in that school district.

MARTIN: But why do you attribute that to this particular course of study?

HUPPENTHAL: Well, we don't attribute this to this particular course of study. We viewed some of the dysfunction going on in those classes as being part and parcel of this broader failure to perform for low income Hispanic kids.

MARTIN: Give us an example, if you would, about specific courses or specific parts of the program, the curriculum itself, which as we said has now been scrapped, that caused you most concern.

HUPPENTHAL: Well, again, it's not necessarily a specific thing. Like some people are talking about the books. The books aren't of concern at all. You know, I tell people you can bring "Mein Kampf" into the classroom, but you'd better be really careful about the viewpoint in which you're bringing that into the classroom.

So it's never the book. It's all about what's going on, the kind of behaviors, and so what we saw replete through the lesson plans were a characterization and literally the creators of the Mexican-American studies classes, they - and they were very explicit. They laid this out in a journal article. They said they were going to racemize(ph) the classes using a Paulo Freirean(ph) philosopher - and he's a writer of the book "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," and he, right in his book, talks about that word oppressed comes right out of "The Communist Manifesto."

And he talks about having a Marxist structure where the entire history of mankind is the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor and characterizing - bringing that characterization into this. So the racemizing of the class was to imbue a sense that the oppressed are Hispanic kids and the oppressor is a white Caucasian power structure.

And we felt that that, in and of itself - and it was replete that that plan to racemize those classes...

MARTIN: Racemize? I'm sorry. I don't understand. Racemize?

HUPPENTHAL: Well, that's a word that the creators of the Mexican-American studies classes in the Tucson Unified...

MARTIN: Racemize?

HUPPENTHAL: Yeah. Uh-huh.

MARTIN: I might say racialize. Is that the same idea? I just don't understand what it is.

HUPPENTHAL: You know, they - it's a word that they created in their journal article and they talked about the fact that they were using this Paulo Freirean(ph), this oppressed and oppressors conflict, and the racemization was this construct of Caucasian power structure being the oppressors and Hispanic kids being the oppressed.

And so out of that we saw this whole series of lesson plans, just detailed. We collected thousands of pages and...

MARTIN: Can you give me an example?

HUPPENTHAL: Classroom exercises in which they had students identify and go through these exercises dealing with different times and territorial shifts in the United States.

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask, though, about that. I mean, if the provision of the law is that a class can't promote resentment, how would you measure that? I mean, couldn't pretty much anything promote resentment, even if historically true? Like, for example, I mean the Holocaust. You mentioned "Mein Kampf." I mean, couldn't you presumably learn about the Holocaust and feel resentment if you were a person of a number of backgrounds? If you were a person of Jewish background? If you were a person of - if you were gay or a lesbian, if you were a disabled person, wouldn't that - I'm just wondering how you can teach something in a manner where you are going to guarantee what a student may or may not feel.

HUPPENTHAL: This thing all went into court and the judge said absolutely you can teach about historical injustice and we have an obligation to do that. When I read about a slave ship coming across the ocean and throwing all their slaves into the ocean, I'm like - the impact that that has on me - exactly. But that doesn't mean that that wasn't an historical fact well documented.

MARTIN: But what about slavery, for example? I mean, slavery became racialized in this country - I'll just use racialized because that's a word I understand. I mean, how can you teach slavery without talking about race? I mean, it's true that servitude in this country was not racial, initially, but it became racial. It became directed in the law at people of African descent.

So how can you teach that without talking about race?

HUPPENTHAL: I think you have to talk about race in that regard, but again, being very careful about it. To tell young kids that the whole deck - that they can't get ahead, that they're victims in, you know, a country in which Barack Obama is president, it defies what we know.

We know that you can engage in America. You can get ahead - that these kids can succeed. And we, again - we'll say it again, that we - what we saw going on in these classrooms - we see at Tucson Unified School District - when we see their graduates coming out of their school into the university system and there Hispanic students having lower persistence rates in college, when we see them having lower academic gains than similar low income Hispanic students in other school districts - we see this all as part and parcel of a school district's failure to perform, not being careful about how they're talking in these classes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Arizona's superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal. He's ruled that a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson, Arizona violates a new state law that he helped write, that he says it helped to promote resentment and did not enhance the educational experience of Mexican-American students. We're here talking about that.

I see your point. And your goal here, it seems to me, is very much in line with that of the prior - the Bush administration in the No Child Left Behind law, which was intended to be sure that, you know, all students were equally well educated, that no student's achievement or lack thereof would be hidden among other students. And you're saying - you're pointing to sort of persistent failure to make appropriate educational gains by these students.

But I've got to - have to sort of point to the argument that - some might argue that you didn't like their narrative, but that you've substituted a narrative which is - forgive me - with respect, equally propagandistic, which is to say that you have a certain worldview and that that's the worldview that you want to impose upon these students as opposed to encouraging critical thinking.

HUPPENTHAL: Well, I can speak for myself. Personally, I don't have any problem with the books that they're using, but I do - I can recognize when somebody's using - for example, we've talked about "Mein Kampf." You can bring that in. I know when somebody's using that book appropriately and when they're using it inappropriately.

And one of the students challenged me. Come on down to our class and sit in our class, so I sat down in the class and up on the wall there's a poster of Che Guevara, and I said - well documented historical fact – Che Guevara helped run the communist death camps. They put 14,000 people to death down there, many of whom their only violation was free speech violation. So you're sort of glorifying him by having that romantic picture of him up there.

Simultaneously one of the creators of Mexican-American studies, right while I'm in there, characterizes Benjamin Franklin as a racist. So I'm, whoa, time out. Benjamin Franklin was the president of the Abolitionist Society in Pennsylvania. Directly he argued and was successful at making Pennsylvania the very first state to ban the slave trade.

MARTIN: But I guess my question is - is your criticism of the curriculum that it was biased or that it didn't offer a uniformly positive view of American history? That it was biased in a direction that you don't agree with or that it didn't promote enough critical thinking?

HUPPENTHAL: I think just what we saw, and the Benjamin Franklin thing was just a piece of this equation. When you're only taking in - when you characterize historical events in racial terms and use that to inflame feelings and you've done it in one dimension each time - for example, conflict between civilizations. What we know in the Southwest is the Native Americans went down into Mexico and conducted violent raids, raiding things, and Mexicans retaliated. So there were these back and forth conflicts, and there were conflicts between the Lewis and Clark expedition, documented horrendous conflicts between Indian tribes.

We know that the history of civilization is replete with conflict that would be intolerable in the modern context, but then to go back into that history and to just always characterize it in one way and to use that to inflame racial resentment, just make that part of this narrative of the oppressed versus the oppressor, we think that that's intolerable. It doesn't promote critical thinking to understand the nature of that conflict and every one of our obligations to make this a more civilized world and a better tomorrow.

MARTIN: One of the points that the supporters of this curriculum make - they make the argument that this program did stimulate a love of learning among these students, that it encouraged them to be engaged in their studies in a way that the curriculum they had been using previously did not.

HUPPENTHAL: Well, two responses. One, there was a claim made that the students in the Mexican-American studies classes had better academic results. We subjected that to rigorous review. You have to be very careful in academics to do apples to apples comparison, and the students in those classes didn't have higher graduation rates or higher academic gains than comparable groups.

It's only because the students in these classes were more likely to be junior and seniors, who naturally have higher graduation rates, that it was associated with the higher graduation rate. But when you carefully compared them with similar juniors and seniors, that disappeared.

MARTIN: What's the next step here? I mean, you used your authority. You raised an objection to the program. As we said, that the law passed and you used your authority as superintendent to - and your decision was upheld by a local – by a district judge. So what's the next step here?

HUPPENTHAL: Well, the development of this law was a little bit more complex than perhaps it's been described. It's been described that I helped write this law when I was in the legislature. Actually, when they brought the law to me, I declined to be the sponsor of it and they went with another sponsor. I did help shape it when it came back to me, and it's not generally the policy area in which I work in. I'm more of a policy wonk dealing with academic gains. But as I got into this area, realizing that I was going to play a policy role, I started studying intently Paulo Freire's work and the influence that it's had on South America.

And I think, far from banning these books, that a lot of liberals ought to read these books and understand them better. These issues are going to be huge philosophical issues for the United States as we become - as our whole racial makeup changes and we need to know that there are a lot of serious concerns about how you educate kids, the values that you pass on to them.

And so this is truly an area for serious policy discussions. It's broken down into a simple conservative versus liberal kind of split or a racial demographic kind of split, but the consequences are going to be enormous for all of America as this thing rolls out over the coming decades.

MARTIN: But again, I think a lot of people would share your view that education, as this country becomes – and it is extremely diverse and becomes even more diverse, that this is, again - which is one of the reasons we were happy that we had the opportunity to speak about this - an area of, you know, most kids go to public school. So what happens in public school is of deep interest to - I would think - most people.

HUPPENTHAL: I can't be successful in Arizona if TUSD is not successful.

MARTIN: You mean the Tucson school district?

HUPPENTHAL: Yeah. The Tucson...

MARTIN: But again, to the basic point. You know, there was a big brouhaha over the textbooks in Texas recently and the argument there - and the argument here in Arizona is that this is one group's - let's just say for the sake of argument that this curriculum was biased. There are those who argue you're just substituting your bias for their bias, and this really isn't about education. It's about a worldview.

HUPPENTHAL: Well, the other point that we made was that this whole controversy brewing down in Tucson - we had what appeared to be a political faction who had come into a school district and taken over the classes. They weren't subject to review by the principal. Essentially the school board had never reviewed the curriculum and approved it.

So when I got in, I gave them a lot of time to say, okay, bring your curriculum up to your school board. What are you teaching in week one, week two? What books are you bringing into the class? What viewpoints are you using with those books? Have this public discussion in front of the school board, the elected officials representing all of the parents, and put this out in the public.

And so this went on for an entire year. They did not come together, and so that's where we are now. Now we're saying now you have to. You have to go through this process. I'm sort of obsessed with local control and they didn't take control and so now we're sort of forcing them, that school board, you are in charge whether you accept that or not. You've got to get this thing under control and bring your community together.

MARTIN: And to that end, you still have to lead this school district, and as you mentioned, there are still a lot of intense feelings around this, as we certainly know from the public hearings and the public comments and so forth.

What's your next step here to try to, you know, bridge this very big gap?

HUPPENTHAL: Well, I want to bring it to a good place, that we have a richer American history, that we leverage all the negative energy that's associated with this right now in a positive way. You know, most students go through class and they hardly get the gist of it, is what the data shows, and so we have this incredible public discussion going on about education, a little bit more friction than I would like, a little bit more conflict than I would like, but it's creating a lot of energy.

So now the question is going to be, can I leverage that energy for a positive purpose or is it going to end up being, ending up in a bad place? It's an incredibly complex situation that I have to deal with. Hopefully I can bring it to a good place.

MARTIN: John Huppenthal is the Superintendent of Public Instruction in the state of Arizona. We caught up with him in Washington, D.C., where he's having meetings with the Department of Education here.

Mr. Huppenthal, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HUPPENTHAL: Thank you. Great to be with you.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: