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Pedagogical Entry Points to Arizona and Ethnic Studies

Over the past month, one of the most watched developments in the news for educators, academicians and progressive-minded folk was the banning of ethnic studies classes in Arizona. This action enacted by the state Legislature and approved by Gov. Jan Brewer and state school Superintendent Tom Horne means that classes focusing of the histories, experiences and contributions of specific ethnic groups cannot be offered in Arizona public schools. During the weeks that this story was a centerpiece in the news cycle, some of the most important points made by various pundits were:


  • That U.S. History has always been about the study of ethnic groups based upon collective identity. It’s just that European ethnic groups (e.g., Italian, German, Irish) are seldom considered ethnic compared with non-European ones today.


  • That classes focusing on the histories, experiences and contributions of specific ethnic groups are not only for students of those ethnic groups. In other words, it is categorically incorrect to conclude that a particular ethnic studies class is only intended for a particular ethnic group and thus an instrument of segregation.


  • That classes focusing on the histories, experiences, and contributions of specific ethnic groups as well as the oft-cited book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, contrary to (un)popular opinion, do not generally advocate that young people overthrow the government.

While the Arizona debacle has now moved out of the news cycle, it is important for progressive-minded folk to continue pushing back against it and the deeper, damaging ideology of colorblindness from which it generates. One way of doing so is to envision the many pedagogical entry points to this issue so young adults in college can understand the different layers of “Arizona” and what is at stake. In light of this importance, here are three key pedagogical entry points to Arizona.

1. Arizona is a quintessential example of what a specific political ideology looks like “on the ground.” Oftentimes, terms like conservative, liberal, Left, and Right can be incredibly vague without concrete examples of what they look like in people’s daily lives. The specific actions in Arizona over the past year—immigration policies, banning ethnic studies, policies about teachers’ “grammatical accents”— are straightforward and grounded examples of what a conservative ideology looks like in practice. And, such actions in Arizona are not recent inventions of the 21st century. Necessary background “reading” here is Public Enemy’s 1991 video for “By The Time I Get to Arizona”. This video, which indeed contains some strong but appropriate imagery of protest and oppression, is a pedagogical site of its own that places the current Arizona issue into a bit broader historical and political context.

2. Arizona is also a quintessential example for how curriculum can affect all students. Every semester I ask my student what comes to mind when they hear the word “curriculum,” and the most common answer is “books.” Granted, the general notion of curriculum isn’t the most enticing in the professional lexicon of education. But the content and positioned representations within these books are what deserve attention. In the case of Arizona, what kinds of affects will these simplified and skewed curricular changes have on students? In posing such a question, it is important to think beyond what information students will and will not receive and consider heuristics — the intellectual parameters of world view, the wheels in the head — through which people think. Deeper than facts and figures, what kinds of affects will such a curriculum have on students minds? 

3. Arizona is also a quintessential example of how texts can be constructed in different ways. Looking at the polarized debates during the news cycle, pundits often discussed Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and often discussed it in radically different ways. These conflicted (mis)readings provide opportunities for students to read Freire’s touchstone work themselves, examine the archived video clips and debates that contained contrasting portrayals, and make their own assessment. While the representatives from Arizona continually misrepresented the text, it is a natural entry point to the text and a worthwhile learning activity to examine the different ways that pundits constructed the central text in their debates.

The timing of these events, happening over the summer when many universities are on break, means that many teachable moments were lost. In order to salvage these, faculty should work to find pedagogical entry points, such as these, so that Arizona can serve as a rich site of learning in the fall for college students. That this population of citizens understands what is at stake here is paramount. Over the next decades, they will be the ones making or contesting such policies.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences and lives.

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