IN THE NEWS: Arizona Fights the Cult of Multiculturalism

In today’s New York Times, you’ll find an update on Arizona’s remarkable effort to purge its schools of what educational traditionalists might call “The Cult of Multiculturalism.”  We’ve written about traditionalist objections to multicultural ideology here, here, and here.  Arizona’s law makes these theoretic objections legally enforceable.

Today’s article focuses on the dispute between the state and the Tucson school district.  Since January 1st, the school district has been ordered to enforce Arizona’s 2010 law.  According to the Huffington Post, Judge Lewis Kowal agreed with the state in late December that Tucson’s Mexican-Studies curriculum was guilty of “actively presenting material in a biased, political and emotionally charged manner.”

The law itself, passed two years ago, declared that no school curricula in Arizona could legally

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The state superintendent of education at the time, Tom Horne, planned an energetic enforcement of the law.  According to a Fox News story, Horne declared in 2010,

Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds.  This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.

In today’s New York Times story, John Huppenthal, the new state superintendent of public instruction, told a reporter he viewed the enforcement of the law as a war.  Quoth Huppenthal, “This is the eternal battle, the eternal battle of all time, the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality.”

We can’t help but wonder what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would make of this law.  In his 1998 book The Disuniting of America the eminent historian denounced the “cult of ethnicity [that] has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities to denounce the goal of assimilation, to challenge the concept of ‘one people,’ and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities.”

But in Arizona’s case, the fight against the tendency of multicultural education to promote what Schlesinger called the “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life” has included some ideologically extraneous elements and politically unpalatable images.

First of all, the law itself targets not only ethnic-studies classes, but includes a remarkably broad shot at any schooling that “promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government.”  This boilerplate antiradical language would feel entirely at home in earlier generations of legislative attempts to control schooling.  In the 1920s, for example, the bundle of state laws that were generally called “anti-evolution” actually had a much broader goal.  They hoped not only to ban evolution but to assert traditional Protestant control of public schooling.  As I argued in my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, school laws with these limitless mandates are more of a cultural statement than a practical attempt at crafting educational policy.

For example, a law passed by the US Congress in 1924 prohibited teachers in Washington DC from any teaching that smacked “of partisan politics, disrespect for the Holy Bible, or that ours is an inferior form of government.”  The goal was more a statement of support for traditional values than to regulate school policy.  Arizona’s inclusion of a clause banning anti-US-ism seems similarly vague and symbolic.

Also, as Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal made clear, this law is part of a broader political and cultural effort to battle not only multiculturalism, but any perceived victory by “the forces of collectivism.”  Not only does this bundle the Arizona law into a broader package of anti-leftist activism, but it also reflects the simple political partisanship behind Arizona’s efforts.

Part of the energy behind the 2010 law came from a perceived effort by Democratic activists to use ethnic-studies programs as a way to turn Latinos against the Republican Party.  One of the reasons for the law was Republican outrage about a speech at Tucson High School by activist Dolores Huerta in which she assured students, “Republicans Hate Latinos.”

Republican lawmakers have united behind this school law as more than a way to keep schools from teaching what Schlesinger denounced as the “cult of ethnicity.”  They also see the programs as part of a deliberate partisan effort to undermine their influence with Latino voters.

However, their efforts might do more to undermine that influence than any ethnic-studies programs ever could.  It doesn’t take a political genius to see the electoral damage that might result from the image of school administrators going into classrooms in Tucson collecting copies of seven prohibited books.  Such stormtrooper tactics to save children from the likes of Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed  and F. Arturo Rosales’ Chicano! The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement spell political suicide.

I imagine that Schlesinger and others who oppose the ideological overreach of multiculturalist education might recoil from these heavy-handed partisan attempts to control Tucson’s schools.  Such critics of multiculturalism, I imagine, would hope that the effort to ban aggressive assertions of the “cult of ethnicity” must only limit itself to the realm of ideas, not to knee-jerk partisan politics and twenty-first century book burnings.

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  1. I just read a Yahoo online news artcile about a teacher in Seattle who because Easter is Christian refused to call Easter Eggs, Easter Eggs but called them chocolate spheres . Read the comments! It is a perfect paraphrase of what this issue is all about!Since when is recognizing diversity promoting religion? Since when is taking a holiday at the end of December promoting Christian belief in Jesus Christ? If you don’t believe in Easter or Christmas, how are you promoting Christian belief by using the time for promoting your family togetherness? If a vocal minority of the backers of the public education system weren’t so phobic there would be no need to have a private, or separate system! Allowing people, giving them the right, to pray at school or participate in religious activities in school does not turn a school system into a religious school system! It does create a multicultural, non discriminatory environment. Simply having woodworking classes does not mean that every single student at the school has to take woodworking class! There is a long list of optional classes that a student is free to take or not take. Allowing religion classes as an option as well does not automatically turn the school into a right wing ultra conservative Bible thumping evangelical campus! Simply because religious expression is allowed in a school does not for a minute mean that every student has to take religious indoctrination classes! Just because tolerance to other multicultural beliefs and world views are allowed does not for a minute mean that the public school has turned into a school forcing religion down the throats of every student who attends the school! Allowing equal rights to ALL students from ALL ethnic backgrounds is what is needs to happen. We need an educational system that is open to ALL viewpoints and perspectives. As soon as one vocal minority group tries to force it’s opinion on everyone else, the whole system fails to meet the needs of anyone.It is time for all the phobic, narrow minded bigots to figure out that these other educational systems are growing exponentially for legitimate and basic reasons. Cultural and ethnic diversity has rendered archaic public educational system outdated and obsolete. Times and ethnic balances have shifted dramatically but the public system has retained it’s archaic Ivory tower old boys club attitude which fortunately is has been swept into the dust bin of history. It is way beyond time for the public educational system to get with the times and become relevant to the 21st century multicultural society it is supposed to serve!The way some people talk about the differences of public versus religious schools it would appear that in public school no mention of any supreme being or religious belief or the exercise of any religious practice can be permitted and in religious schools the whole day is spent in religious study. That notion is absurdly unfounded and ridiculous. The consensus seems to be that there can only be two extreme opposites. How that thinking can in any way be thought of as tolerant escapes me. I find it completely appalling that a few people feel that they alone have the right to determine what education should be like. I will say again that this debate has absolutely NOTHING to do with education of children! If the Catholic educational system was not growing exponentially thereby reducing the per student government funding of the failing public system, there would be NO DISCUSSION! This whole debate is about a few people who don’t believe in any god or religious belief system and are adamant that no one else should either and that their viewpoint is the only one and the best one for everyone in our multicultural society. In the last century we saw many examples of what happens when bigots force their views on societies.Rather than get antagonistic towards what is working and growing, talk to the people taking their Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. children out of the public educational system to have them educated in a religious system quite different to the one of their belief. Find out why these people are making the choices they are making. If all these people from all these backgrounds are making this choice, it should be profoundly obvious that the public system is in crisis, that it is failing to meet the needs of ever increasing segments of our multicultural society. Removing funding or closing down Catholic schools will NOT solve the problem! The only solution is a total rethink of the educational system to address these multicultural issues. Simply denying cultural diversity and denying students the ability to be who they are will only drive more students out of the public system and into a separate system that recognizes and respects that diversity. Whether some people like it or not, Alberta, and Canada for that matter, is longer a state of 95% white western European descendants. A closed educational system that does not recognize that change and move to change it’s policies to address the needs of our very multicultural society has no right to complain about parallel systems that move to meet that need. People are going to choose what best meets their needs whether the losers in that choice like it or not. Taking away that choice won’t make the problem go away either.No one is saying that Public schools need to teach religion and force all students to take religion classes. All that is needed is for the Public system to recognize that there is more than one world view, there is more than one way to look at things. There must be some middle ground between the two extremes. It is time for sensitivity and accommodating other peoples perspectives of the world.At the end of the day, the fact is that all around the world private/separate schools have higher student grade point averages, lower student drop out rates and higher percentages of students going on to post secondary education than their public counterparts. That is a pretty strong educational endorsement. It should be obvious that the emphasis in these schools is in fact on academic education. But then, sadly, this discussion is not about education.

  1. Tom Horne’s greatest gift to Ethnic Studies: Testifying in federal court against Chicano Studies - Three Sonorans
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