Sunday, May 23, 2010

Banning Ethnic Studies: Why Stanley Fish's Take is Out of Bounds

Sometimes just making yourself at home is revolutionary"

--Slumberland, Paul Beatty

If you received the kind of secondary public education that I had, you would have believed that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, all Martin Luther King wanted in terms of human rights was for his children to drink from the same water fountains as the white kids, and that the socioeconomic hardships that black folks have endured in the U.S. were largely of their own making. My education was so thin, in fact, regarding African American contributions to the U.S. that I didn't realize that black folks wrote great books (including Harriet Jacobs' Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folks, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man) until I attended college. Indeed, when I enrolled in my first African American Studies course as a college sophomore I felt that my education up till that point in my life had been a complete sham. What I had learned of substance about slavery and black struggle at large could've easily fit on an index card.

And though at college I could take courses in African American Studies, the curriculum was set up in such a way that all of the course offerings were marginalized within it. So, for example, as an English Literature major, the three courses in African American Literature that I took at the time didn't count toward the completion of my major degree requirements. In real and symbolic ways, then, the white writers (including Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Dickinson, Faulkner, and Steinbeck) mattered; the black ones (including Morrison, Hurston, Ellison, Baldwin, and DuBois) didn't.

Indeed, when I informed my then academic advisor and Chair of the English department that I planned to pursue a doctorate degree in African American Literature, he reared back in his seat and let fly, "Why on earth would you do that?" He then followed, "What is there even to read?" Given that the faculty at the time consisted of two African Americans that taught African American Literature, his comments struck me as particularly venomous. I was later informed by one of the black faculty members that my advisor had plenty of company in his views; that there was a block of faculty members that actually prided themselves in having never read an African American novel. This happened, by the way, in the mid-1990s.

Given the extent to which African-American and non-white experiences have been marginalized—then and now—in public education (and, mind you, including these experiences in history, literature, and social studies text books does not mean that they are actually being taught in the classroom), the recent op-ed piece
"Arizona: The Gift that Keeps on Giving" by Stanley Fish in the
New York Times regarding the newly minted and explosive Arizona law banning ethnic studies wildly misses the mark.

Fish attacks the idea of politicizing curriculum, which includes casting the Raza studies classes in Arizona as propagandistic, because they encourage students to see our educational system as politically biased on matters of race and socially equality. Ignoring, among other things, the undeniable social variables of discrimination/oppression that ignited ethnic studies in the first place, Fish proposes that the problem with ethnic studies, generally, and Raza studies, in particular, as well as with the new Arizona laws banning them is that they all “politicize” education.

Considering the fact that our public education system was initially created with the expressed purpose to “nationalize” the citizens of the U.S. (we started every school day when I was child reciting the pledge of allegiance), Fish’s assertions that ethnic studies and Arizona legistlators are politicizing the curriculum simply have no grounds in history. That is to say, that our public schooling was--and continues to be--a politicized enterprise. (The recent overhaul of the school curriculum in Texas by the dominant conservative political arm of the elected educational board members is a striking case in point.) Ethnic studies programs make this dynamic visible and offer correctives, usually in the form of counter narratives, to enhance our study of the social, cultural, political, and economic world in which we exist. The Arizona ban on ethnic studies is, on one level, trying to shut this crucial dialogue down.

In a twisted political maneuver, conservative Arizona legislators turned the tables on the very programs created to address the racial politicization of education; the kind of politicization that kept folks like me ignorant to the central role that African Americans and historically oppressed groups played in shaping our republic.

Though to the untrained eye, Fish’s pronouncements might come across as “balanced” because he appears to analyze the pros and cons of each side of the issue, his wildly ahistorical analysis trivializes the issues at hand--namely, the lopsided power equation that continues to hold sway over how the historical realities of racial oppression in the U.S. are engaged in the classroom. Suffice to say that it is hardly a coincidence that most of what I, and generations before mine, have learned about African American realities was acquired outside the boundaries of the educational system.

Thankfully, a lot has changed for the better in the twenty years since I graduated high school. Writers like Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, are now staples in most American Literature classes. Critical engagements with the Civil Rights Movement and black struggle at large are becoming increasing more commonplace in the classroom too. These important and necessary changes to our educational curriculum are the direct result of political agitations and civil disobedience. Our history bears this out. Indeed, the absence of this consideration by Stanley Fish, a scholar of the first order, makes the strongest case that we need more, not less, challenges to educational conventions if we are to make good on the egalitarian principles that we claim to hold so dear.


  1. (RE: previous post - my blog is besieged with strange Kanji-laden spam as well)

    I grew up as a minority all the way until undergrad. The high school education did a remarkable job with pulling the Eurocentric educational axis off balance. My first four books of required pre-AP English reading were from Eldridge Cleaver, Richard Wright, DuBois and Hansberry. I've re-read many of these books again after 15 years, and it's astounding how much more they sting. However, as I talk to younger folks in high school, these authors are more and more familiar to them than they were to my high school classmates. I graduated in 1995, and the DOE stats had the school at 98.2% black that year. Ironic. If these authors become part of the canon, then this shift in education will hopefully bear more fruit to balance how we come at the kids.

    An aside: I'm finishing 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy. The next book is 'The Miseducation of the Negro' by Carter Woodson. Have you read this? I've been told that it's still very relevant almost 80 years later.

    Well, you have a fan. I look forward to your posts. Take care!

  2. Yes that kanji-laden spam is crazy right? Unfortunately yours is more the exception than the rule re: exposure. The cold hard truth is that the overwhelming majority of students don't get this exposure. The students I teach, for instance, don't have a clue about most of these writers. Sadly, I don't see this trend changing any time soon. If anything, I think it will move in the other direction as efforts to change curricula and shut down ethnic studies programs in Texas and Arizona are signaling.