Social Justice and the Arizona Ethnic Studies ban

As a student in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, addressing the question of social justice education is impossible to avoid. It seems this could be said for any TC student. From the moment we walk in the front door, John Dewey (along with just about every program or departmental mission statement) is sure to remind us that the clearest path to equal opportunity for all is through social justice education. The problem with this mantra is the same problem with all mantras: endless repetition in the realm of theory does not necessarily translate to meaning in the world of practice. Take Stanley Fish’s recent post in the New York Times blog concerning the Arizona law banning ethnic studies courses in public schools. Fish sets out to discredit both sides of the controversy surrounding the law by comparing the underlying logics of the law itself (Arizona House Bill 2281) with the Mexican American Studies curriculum of the Tuscon Unified School District (TUSD), each of which claim to stand on the rock solid pillar of social justice.

The TUSD curriculum embodies the educational philosophy that the Arizona law sets out to banish, and according to Fish, is heavily influenced by Paolo Freire’s famous book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” The curriculum seeks to engage students in questions of race politics within the theoretical framework of hegemony and power. As Fish puts it, “Freire argues that the structures of domination and oppression in a society are at their successful worst when the assumptions and ways of thinking that underwrite their tyranny have been internalized by their victims.” This approach to education apparently gives both Jan Brewer and Stanley Fish the creepy creeps, but for entirely different reasons. Jan Brewer (who will henceforth stand in for this law we’re discussing) un-ironically slaps the “racist” label on the approach, while Fish fears this as the “virus of a political classroom.” According to Brewer, studying Mexican American culture through the lens of critical settler colonial studies “promotes resentment toward a particular race of people” (i.e. white people), and “promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government.” Fish is also very concerned that this approach to education will foster revolutionary behavior, but couches his argument in more humanistic terms, arguing for a classroom that promotes learning for learning’s sake, and not for some political end.

Going after Brewer’s assertion that ethnic studies courses are racist towards white people seems a little too easy, so I’d like to zero in a little more on the argument that Fish is making, and how it relates to the question of social justice that many of us are concerned with. Fish sees both the curriculum and the law as embodying “bad paradigms” as a result of over-politicization. The question I’d like to ask is the following: How can learning ever be an apolitical act? The fundamental problem with Fish’s argument seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what it means to study hegemony and power. While I have never read “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, I have read a great deal of the theoretical literature on power dynamics in the context of Native American Studies (Foucault and Said being the most personally influential). Far from encouraging me (or any of my classmates) to overthrow the U.S. government, it provided extremely useful ways to think of and act within the world around us. Examining the bloody colonial realities of the society in which we live is at times painful and difficult, but it is also essential in providing an honest sense of time and place, so that our actions might actually be relevant to the political and historical realities we (“we” being those of us living in settler colonial societies) have inherited. I believe this kind of engagement is an entirely legitimate approach to fostering a“socially just” existence. While I can go along with Fish’s criticism of the Arizona Law (though I would go about it in a different way), the argument that studying power structures leads to political proselytizing is fundamentally misguided.

While Brewer makes a convoluted plea to social justice for white people, Fish is worried about tainting “pure learning” with “political proselytizing.” I’m uncomfortable with a final definition of what social justice actually is, but in the drama of Arizona education politics, practice and discourse, the Tuscon Unified School District seems much closer than the other players.

“The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Teachers College, Columbia University or the Arts and Humanities Department.”