Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tucson Schools: Shootout at the Ideology Corral

The Tucson Unified School District is in the news because it has shut down the district's Mexican American Studies program.  The state school superintendent had threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in funding because the program allegedly violates an Arizona state law passed in 2010.  House Bill 2281 made illegal school programs that:

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

One of the books removed from classrooms.
An audit ordered by the state superintendent, John Huppenthal, found the program was not violating the law, but he came after it anyway.  To some people his actions seem racist in motivation.  To some his actions smack of a vendetta against the program.  And some are upset with books being removed from the classrooms, boxed up and forbidden to be read.  Many people in Tucson and from across the nation have protested the shutdown, and my friend Debbie Reese has been sharing developments and perspectives on her blog

Many of the program's teachers and some of the authors whose works have been removed from the classes have written about these events.  Their words are more insightful than anything I can share.  However, I did want to write something about my reaction when I first read the Arizona state law in question.

The law prohibits school programs that "Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."  The curious concept here is "the treatment of pupils as individuals."

One could argue that this is hard for schools to do, since, by design, they are intended to indoctrinate students, to encourage them to think alike in key matters.  A school is something Louis Althusser called an Ideological State Apparatus.  That is, a school  is a state institution designed to endow students with state-approved ideology.  The school is not interested in the students as individuals; it is interested in them as citizens, and being a citizen means having some kind of solidarity (actually, many solidarities, conscious and unconscious).

I tried to imagine teaching a variety of subjects -- history, sociology, civics, writing, etc. -- that somehow ignored solidarities of all kinds.  I found it just about impossible.  We are born into them.  We are members of them before we ever start choosing them.  For instance, most Americans carry their father's last name.  Why?  In part because the United States is a patriarchal society, and that is a kind of solidarity.  Solidarity is formed, in part, by sharing an ideology.

Using this example of the child taking the father's name, Althusser wrote: "Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration in which it is 'expected' once it has been conceived."  For Althusser the "subject" is a person who has been, in a sense, constructed from the various ideologies in which he/she is born and raised.  There is no choice in this manner; all humans are subjects because they are born into social groups (including their families) with systems of beliefs and behaviors.  Such a system is an ideology.

Imagine trying to teach the students in Tucson's school as individuals rather than as Americans (ironically,  some of them are NOT American citizens).  I doubt Huppenthal would agree to that.  Imagine educating American students as individuals rather than as future participants in a capitalist economy.  That would upset a lot of people, including those guys running for the Republican presidential nomination.

I can see advocating some kind of solidarity other than an ethnic one.  That could be a solidarity based on nationality or economic class or something arbitrary (Team Jacob vs. Team Edward, perhaps).  However, I see the opposition of "ethnic solidarity" against "individual" as suggesting an ideological education vs. a non-ideological education.  I don't know that such a thing is possible.

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