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.