by Patricia J. Williams
(A shorter version of this essay is published in the June 4, 2012 issue of The Nation Magazine, entitled “Anti-Intellectualism from Arizona to Michigan.”)
Recently, I found out that my work is mentioned in a book that has been banned from the schools in Tucson, Arizona. The anti–ethnic studies law recently passed by the state (Arizona Revised Statutes Section 15-112) prohibits teachings 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 the treatment of pupils as individuals.” I invite you to read the book in question, titled Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it qualifies.
In fact, I invite you to take on as your summer reading the astonishingly lengthy list of books that have been removed from the Tucson public school system as part of this wholesale elimination of the Mexican-American studies curriculum. The list may be found at http://azethnicstudies.com/banned-books. The authors and editors include Isabel Allende, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Kozol, Rudolfo Anaya, bell hooks, Sandra Cisneros, James Baldwin, Howard Zinn, Rodolfo Acuña, Ronald Takaki, Jerome Skolnick and Gloria Anzaldúa. Even Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Shakespeare’s The Tempest received the hatchet, deemed works that are “biased, political, and emotionally charged,” or where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes….”
Trying to explain what was offensive enough to warrant killing the entire curriculum and firing its director, Tucson School Board member Michael Hicks stated rather proudly that he was not actually familiar with the curriculum. “I chose not to go to any of their classes,” he told Al Madrigal on The Daily Show. “Why even bother?….I base my thoughts on hearsay from others.” Contrasting his sense of the relative dangers posed by Mexican-American studies as opposed to a curriculum that teaches the history of slavery, Mr. Hicks opined that ““Rosa Clark [meaning Rosa Parks] did not take out a gun and go onto a bus and hold up everybody…”
The situation in Arizona is not an isolated phenomenon. There has been an unfortunate uptick in academic book bannings and firings, made worse by a nationwide disparagement of teachers, teachers’ unions and scholarship itself. Brooke Harris, a teacher at Michigan’s Pontiac Academy for Excellence, was summarily fired after asking—merely asking–permission to let her students conduct a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s family. Working at a charter school, Harris was an at-will employee, and so the superintendent needed little justification for terminating her. According to Harris, “I was told…that I’m being paid to teach, not to be an activist.” (It is perhaps not accidental that Harris worked in the schools of Pontiac, a city in which nearly every public institution has been taken over by cost-cutting executives working under “emergency manager” contracts. There the value of education is measured in purely econometric terms, reduced to a “product,” calculated in “opportunity costs.”) To read more about this case and to join the more than 200,000 others who have signed a petition asking for her reinstatement, you can go to: http://www.change.org/petitions/fired-for-teaching-about-trayvon-re-hire-brooke-harris-at-pontiac-academy-for-excellence
The law has taken some startling turns as well. In 2010 the Sixth Circuit upheld the firing of high school teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall when parents complained about an assignment in which she had asked her students in an upper-level language arts class to look at the American Library Association’s list of “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” and write an essay about censorship. The complaint against her centered on three specific texts: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. (She was also alleged, years earlier, to have shown students a PG-13 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.) The court found that the content of Evans-Marshall’s teachings concerned matters “of political, social or other concern to the community” and that her interest in free expression outweighed certain other interests belonging to the school “as an employer.” But, fatally, the court concluded that “government employees…are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes.” While the Sixth Circuit allowed that Evans-Marshall may have been treated “shabbily,” it still maintained that, “When a teacher teaches, ‘the school system does not “regulate” [that] speech as much as it hires that speech. Expression is a teacher’s stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary.’” Thus, the court concluded, it is the “educational institution that has a right to academic freedom, not the individual teacher.”
There are a number of factors at play in the current rash of controversies. One is a rather stunning sense of privilege, the confident sense of superiority that allows someone to pass sweeping judgment on a body of work without having done any study at all. After the Chronicle of Higher Education published an item highlighting the dissertations of five young PhD candidates in African-American studies at Northwestern University, Chronicle blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote that the mere titles of the dissertations were sufficient cause to eliminate all black-studies classes. Riley hadn’t read the dissertations; they’re not even published yet. When questioned about this, she argued that, as “a journalist…it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them,” adding: “[T]here are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.” Riley tried to justify her view with a clichéd, culture-wars-style plaint about the humanities and higher education: “Such is the state of academic research these days.… The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them.” This is not mere arrogance; it is the same cocooned, “white-ghetto” narrow-mindedness that allows Michael Hicks to be in charge of a major American school system yet not know “Rosa Clark’s” real name.
Happily, there is some pushback occurring against such anti-intellectualism. One of the most vibrant examples is a protest group called Librotraficante, or Book Trafficker. Organized by Tony Diaz, a Houston Community College professor, the group has been caravanning throughout the Southwest holding readings, setting up book clubs, establishing “underground libraries,” and dispensing donated copies of the books that have been removed from Arizona’s public school curriculum. You can donate by visiting http://librotraficante.com.