You Can’t Read That! Fahrenheit 451 in Tucson, Continued

whites onlyTwo days ago I wrote about the cancellation of Mexican American and Native American Studies classes in Tucson high schools, and the large-scale book banning that followed.

Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) officials confiscated books and other materials used in the cancelled classes, boxed them, and shipped them to a storage facility.  Local, national, and international media called it book banning on an unprecedented scale.  So did I.

That evening a spokesperson claimed TUSD had not banned any books.  They had only confiscated seven textbooks used in a few classes that had been cancelled.  Why, those same seven books are still being taught in other (non-ethnic studies) classes, and are freely available to students in school libraries.  It’s all much ado about nothing!

Some in the media took TUSD at its word and declared talk of book banning a false alarm.  Others felt TUSD was blowing smoke up the world’s butt.

I’m in the latter camp.  Clearly TUSD’s intention is to keep students from reading, and teachers from instructing, certain books.  The actions TUSD took to achieve that end are tantamount to book banning.  Or, as author Neil Gaiman says, “Every Banned Book Week there are people who claim books are never banned in the US.  Sometimes they’re just put in boxes.”

The facts are not in dispute.  TUSD administrators interrupted ethnic studies classes in progress and made teachers confiscate and box books and other teaching materials, right in front of their students.  They told teachers to remove personally-owned copies of prohibited books … the ones they couldn’t legally seize … from offices and classrooms.  The collected books were sent to a storage facility.  Administrators told teachers they could no longer teach from or assign those books … or any books with themes of race, ethnicity, and oppression … and told them they’d be monitored to make sure they didn’t.

TUSD says other teachers (i.e., non-ethnic studies teachers) are free to instruct from, and assign, any of these books.  Sure they are … if they don’t mind being fired.  Everyone knows that in fact these books are now prohibited across the board, along with other books as yet undiscovered.  TUSD president Mark Stegeman yesterday said this:

This is the first example I know of, because external circumstances made this case urgent. But I suspect that TUSD is using many books which were never legally approved, in many different courses, and we have to track those books down and either remove them or go through proper curriculum approvals. Staff has already begun that search process.

It’s important to point out that what Mr. Stegeman said isn’t confined to books used in the now-cancelled ethnic studies classes (because those books were already gone when he said it), but to books used in all classes taught within TUSD: literature, speech, social studies, history … what Mexican American and Native American students might now call White Studies classes.

This prohibition on books that talk about race, ethnicity, and oppression is so open-ended, you could probably find an excuse to apply it to virtually any book used within TUSD.  They haven’t found all the other textbooks and assigned reading books that talk about race, ethnicity, and oppression, but now that they’re looking for them, they will … and don’t you know it’ll turn out these as-yet unidentified books will not have been “legally approved.”   These books too will be confiscated, boxed, and put in storage.  Is that (gasp!) a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Oh, look, there’s a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird!

So what about TUSD’s claim that copies of the seven seized books are still available to students in school libraries?  Technically true, but as the Tucson Citizen points out,

In a district of more than 60,000 students, 61 percent of whom come from Mexican-American families, library copies of the targeted seven books appear to be sparse. There are two district-wide copies available of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, which had been singled out by state superintendent Huppenthal.

The district’s online catalog showed only one copy of the Critical Race Theory textbook.

Tucson High School [the largest school within TUSD — pw] does not have one of the 16 copies available in the district of the textbook “Rethinking Columbus: The Next Five Years,” according to the catalog.

So yeah, the books are available.  But not really.  One or two copies may be gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, but with the classes that assigned the books cancelled, and all other teachers on notice they’ll be fired if they dare assign them, who’ll ever know they’re there?

Finally, the conservative press is making fun of book-banning alarmists’ claims that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was on the list of allegedly-banned books.  We never banned Shakespeare, protests TUSD!  Well, let’s see about that:

… in a recorded meeting with his administrators last Wednesday, Tucson High School teacher Curtis Acosta was admonished not to teach the classic play in his literature class using the “nexus of race, class and oppression” or “issues of critical race theory.”

“What is very clear is that ’The Tempest’ is problematic for our administrators due to the content of the play and the pedagogical choices I have made,” Acosta said in an interview. “In other words, Shakespeare wrote a play that is clearly about colonization of the new world and there are strong themes of race, colonization, oppression, class and power that permeate the play, along with themes of love and redemption.

“At the end of the meeting it became clear to all of us that I need to avoid such literature and it was directly stated. Due to the madness of this situation and our fragile positions as instructors who will be frequently observed for compliance, and be asked to produce examples of student work as proof of our compliance, I cannot disagree with their advice. Now we are in the position of having to rule out ’The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ etc. for the exact same reasons.”

Lest anyone doubt this whole exercise is rooted in racism, when students from TUSD’s Cholla High School recently walked out of classes to march to TUSD headquarters in protest, they were met by a phalanx of administrators including Lupita Garcia (!), who told the students the reason Mexican-American Studies is no longer being taught is because “this is America” and to go to Mexico to learn “Mexican history.”  She then directed the protesting students to report to TUSD schools this coming Saturday to make up for missed classes by performing janitorial duties.

What, you think I’m kidding?  Tom Horne, the former state schools superintendent who designed HB 2281, the law that banned Mexican American and Native American Studies classes, views it as  “civilizational war.”  The histories of Mexican Americans and Native Americans, in his view, are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus lie outside of Western civilization.  When he introduced HB 2281 back in 2010, he also announced his intention to fire public school teachers with Mexican accents.  The only thing that stopped him there was the threat of federal anti-discrimination action.

Arizona.  Banner of books, racist meth lab, national and international laughingstock.


2 thoughts on “You Can’t Read That! Fahrenheit 451 in Tucson, Continued

  • I was on the periphery of a similar issue when I taught 8th grade in the 1980s. Diversity and ethnicity were big issues then and a teacher had proposed an “Ethic Studies” program for the 8th grade that would, among other things, promote critical thinking skills. On the face of it, it sounded good. But the devil was in the details.

    Ampng other things, the students would have to do a book report on Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”, as an example of ethnic conflict. The program was discussed at a department staff meeting and I asked if there were any daily lesson plans that listed the day’s learning objectives. Answer: none. I then asked if anyone besides me had read the book. Answer: nope, including the teacher who had proposed the program! Rather than get confrontational, I “suggested” that the program might need further development. The head of the department then told me to do it! So I checked out a couple of programs. Talk about sloppy thinking and instructional techniques! Based on that experience, and the curriculums I examined, anyone who does away with an ethnic studies program is doing students a service.

    As for “Wretched”, I suppose I am guilty of censorship as I do not think it is suitable for the average 8th grader and would not use it in any class that I taught.

    Did I mention that the devil is in the details?

  • I don’t doubt there were problems with the ethnic studies program. My main interest is the books. They have instituted a book banning policy so open-ended it’ll be a wonder anything of value is left by the time they’re done. They have paved the way for wholesale book banning, and as I said in my first post, I suspect that was their purpose all along.

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