ARTICLE

Why Arizona Needs Ethnic Studies

My mother’s birth certificate, dated 1915 and issued in Brooklyn, New York, gives her name as Maria. I knew her only as Mary, the name that appears on her marriage certificate, her social security card and her gravestone. Her sister Philomena was so determined to get away from her name that she had it changed legally to Phyliss. Their brother Philipo chopped his down to Philip. Their other siblings? Anna became Anne, Elisa morphed into Alice and Cosimo was known to his friends as Pete.  

My mother’s birth certificate, dated 1915 and issued in Brooklyn, New York, gives her name as Maria. I knew her only as Mary, the name that appears on her marriage certificate, her social security card and her gravestone. Her sister Philomena was so determined to get away from her name that she had it changed legally to Phyliss. Their brother Philipo chopped his down to Philip. Their other siblings? Anna became Anne, Elisa morphed into Alice and Cosimo was known to his friends as Pete. 

They all spoke Italian at home, the only language their parents knew. They learned English at school. That’s where they also learned to be ashamed of being the children of immigrants. My mother, fluent in the language, never spoke Italian in public, lest bystanders realize she wasn’t a “real” American.

Those were the days when schools had one strategy for assimilating the children of immigrants:  Call them by an American name, encourage them to forget their culture and put them on the vocational track. In the 1920s, conventional wisdom held that the best way to be an American was to lose ethnicity and blend in as quickly as possible.

We’ve come a long way since then, right? We switched the melting pot for the salad bowl over 40 years ago when teaching about assimilation, and we’ve instituted all sorts of special months to help children celebrate the rich variety of heritages Americans represent. 

Not so fast. Lawmakers in Arizona have passed a bill that would deprive public schools of funding if the school offers “ethnic studies” courses in grades K-12 that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." (italics added) The bill now awaits Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature.

We doubt there are many fifth graders in Arizona being treated to lessons on overthrowing the government. In fact, we think those first two items, unlikely to be found in any curriculum, were included mainly to tar the last provisions—a little guilt by association, if you will. 

Educators know that it’s essential to treat pupils as individuals. That’s one of the major reasons for differentiated instruction. However, they also know that treating them as individuals and recognizing their membership in an ethnic or cultural group are not mutually exclusive. It’s important to recognize group identity. So important, in fact, that the idea of cultural identity is one of the ten main themes in the national social studies standards. As a former social studies teacher, I have a hard time imagining teaching the subject without addressing the issue of identity.

Effective teachers understand that it’s better to help children feel proud of their culture rather than heap on the shame that my mother experienced. Effective teachers keep up with the research and know that culturally relevant pedagogy actually improves the learning opportunities for children from diverse backgrounds. Effective teachers know how important it is to have inclusive materials in their classrooms. The publishing industry has responded with a robust and wide assortment of children’s literature that adds children of all races and ethnicities to the pages once occupied solely by Dick and Jane.

Arizona’s new law is a desperate effort to bring back an era that should be firmly behind us. It was conceived by people who want to turn back the clock to a time when many people believed there was only one way to be American—by letting go of cultural identity.  

The proposed law is bad educational practice and represents another ill-advised attempt by a political body to determine curriculum. Worse, it will have a chilling effect on multi-cultural education in a state where more than 40 percent of the population is not from the dominant culture.

And the next time a teacher in Arizona thinks about using a lesson like this, or teaching in a way that recognizes her students’ culture, she may reconsider and decide not to do what is best for her students, but what is safe.

And that is a shame.

Update: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill into law on May 11, 2010.

 

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