A De-Politicized Classroom: Possible or Impossible?

The ban on ethnic studies in Arizona has spawned a nationwide debate. The argument over ethnic studies has not been this mainstream since students first demanded and protested for race-based courses and departments four decades ago.

 In the late 1960s and 1970s, AALANA (African-American, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American) students, teachers and professors clamored to convince America about the need for specialized courses that explore their peculiar experience. But they did not just want to study and learn about their specific experiences — they wanted to use that knowledge to advance their communities. Taking a supposed middle ground, administrators and superintendents tended to support the former purpose but widely rejected the latter.

 The Arizona House Bill 2281 bans public school classes that “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, and/or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.”

 Mainstream America and the liberal academy seem torn on the bill, just like they were conflicted on the students’ demands 40 years ago. At the same time people seem opposed to banning courses “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” they seem to support the removing of “political” and/or cultural nationalistic courses. 

 The bill primarily targeted the Department of Mexican American Studies in the Tucson Unified School District whose mission, according to its website, is to “work toward the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student” and “promote and advocate for social and educational transformation.”

 The bill’s writers and the Mexican-American program’s leaders are being classified as extremist, racist and reckless for dragging politics into education. 

 In an editorial titled, “Law is problem, but so is message of these classes,” The Arizona Republic writes, “These TUSD activists are the Russell Pearces of the political left. If the nation indeed has come to see Pearce as the personification of the mean-spirited, anti-immigrant right, then Augustine Romero, Sean Arce and the other self-identified “progressive” Marxists of TUSD’s ethnic studies program are his equally sinister mirror image.”

 Stanley Fish, writing this week in The New York Times, says “the loud debate over the recently passed Arizona House Bill 2281, which bans from the public schools ethnic studies courses that promote race consciousness, is a clash between two bad paradigms.”

 It appears most Americans and academics are being intellectually seduced into walking down this supposed middle ground that has signs announcing ethnic studies is fine so long as it is not political. This moderate road is built on the idea that classrooms should be (and can be) de-politicized.

 Just like I have yet to be convinced that a scholar can be unbiased and objective, it is difficult for me to join most Americans down the moderate road because I am not sure if I agree with the idea it is based on. I am not quite sure that you can have a de-politicized classroom.

 Stanley Fish of The New York Times admits that “the knowledge a student acquires in an ethnic studies course that stays clear of indoctrination may lead down the road to counter-hegemonic, even revolutionary, activity. You can’t control what students do with the ideas they are exposed to. But that is quite different from setting out deliberately to produce that activity as the goal of classroom instruction.”

 I guess my question is how does a teacher “stay clear of indoctrination?”  To me, to teach ideas is to indoctrinate. In most dictionaries, a doctrine is defined as something that is taught— be it an idea, principles, position, etc.

 Nevertheless, there is a difference between a teacher who consciously and deliberately indoctrinates and one who unconsciously and unknowingly indoctrinates. But to those taking the moderate road, the question is not whether one consciously or unconsciously indoctrinates. The question is whether one indoctrinates. 

 In reality, teachers either indoctrinate patriotism or disloyalty, camaraderie or enmity, the need for the maintenance or destruction of the status quo. I think most American teachers innocently do both.

 So the moderate road that is filling up with Americans may be built on a faulty premise. All classrooms are politicized. All teachers indoctrinate — either consciously or unconsciously. 

 When we admit the obvious, then the real discussion will begin. The question will shift from whether a classroom should be politicized to what our teachers should or should not indoctrinate — what our teachers should or should not teach.

 Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.