Setting Standards: Serfs and Lords
by Rodolfo F. Acuña
People ask me if the banning of books is actually a blessing in disguise because it calls attention to the banned books. I respond, “Hell No!” Censorship threatens our freedom of speech, and it is the final step toward a totalitarian state.
In the guise of security, our emails and our phones are tapped. Anyone using a Wi-Fi can be spied on at will. What is happening today pales George Orwell’s 1984; it is as insidious as the methods used by the Nazis, the Stasi and the Russians.
The fallout of the banning of books affects all of us. In the future, it will negatively affect the publication of Latino books. What makes it so dangerous is that most of us are oblivious to this threat to our liberties. We are like the serfs in the Middle-Ages who were willing surrender their freedoms and their properties to the feudal lords in return for protection.
The first fatality of censorship is the truth. In the case of the censorship of books by the Tucson Unified School District, it was not just the books that were banned, it is also what will be published in the future. The banning of books did not affect the sales of Occupied America or the other banned books – the banning certainly did not hurt Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The big losers are the new authors. Mexican Americans and Latinos do not have a defined market share to start off. Now they scared publishers to take a chance. As it stands, publishers look at us as foreigners and find excuses not to print books on U.S. Latinos.
The banning in Arizona will have a chilling effect on less established Chicana/o children book authors whose previous books showed promise, but will now have to wait and see which way the wind blows.
This hits close to home — been there before.
My first works were children and young adult books. They were accepted by publishers because there was a slight opening. They saw an emerging market for them in California and Texas. In the latter sixties, California’s social studies standards wrote Mexican Americans into its guidelines; this represented a huge breakthrough.
California purchased all the books for its school districts so even as supplemental reading material, there was a niche.
The other market was Texas. Publishers could have cared less whether Nebraska expressed an interest in Chicana/o K-12 children’s books. Publishers cared and care more about profit than need.
I had planned to write a children’s book every other year. At the time, I was inspired by the children’s books of Nephtali De Leon and Ernesto Galarza that went beyond entertainment.
At first the Texas Education Agency was enthusiastic about the books. However, things quickly changed. The first was a teacher backlash such as when San Joaquin Valley teachers threw Cultures in Conflict into the waste basket and refused to teach it.
Meanwhile, my activism was making waves, and Chicanos in the TEA told me that they were getting complaints about me from various districts. I was told in confidence that Texas would not be buying my books; this was confirmed by the American Book Co. and Charter Books both of whom had planned to publish more books on Mexican Americans.
These were not isolated cases. The truth be told, thought control exists throughout American education. It is subtle, and is much less transparent than the banning of books.
In Tucson, the books were removed from the classrooms in full view of students and teachers. The only thing that was missing was the Inquisitor’s bonfire. Also, most districts are not as stupid as Tucson and outlaw Shakespeare.
In California and the rest of the country commissions are appointed by the state boards of education to determine what can be taught at K-12 grade levels. The commissions are comprised of small groups of educators – generally white. Their actions are followed closely by special interest groups who want their version of the Apostles’ Creed taught in the schools.
Standards seem innocuous. Indeed, the word standard seems progressive, and we think of it as some kind of measurement. The mindset is that standards are necessary to furthered safety. They are necessary to improve our lives.
But the word is not as innocent as it seems. Today, the setting of standards in education has reached ridiculous proportions. It dictates what students can and cannot learn. Who is and who is not important to know about. In every sense of the word it amounts to censorship.
Without the knowledge of most people, the fight over standards has become part of the nation’s culture wars.
The problem is not so much with setting benchmarks in math and science – that is, unless they become muddied by the teaching of creationism. The major battlefields are in the field history–social science where right wing conservative groups focus their attacks.
Even liberals such as the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. often join the nativist ranks. Schlesinger in the 1990s wrote The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society that attacked multiculturalism and Afrocentrism. His position was so jingoistic that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard, called Schlesinger’s arguments a “demand [for a] cultural white-face.”
Schlesinger and his gaggle of supporters wanted U.S. standards to focus more on what the United States has done right than wrong on topics such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
According to Schlesinger, the American identity was in jeopardy because multiculturalism and Afrocentricism placed race and ethnicity over national affiliation. Identity politics, according to Schlesinger, promoted separatist ideas of history.
Today, well-funded right wing foundations such as the National Association of Scholars have openly entered the culture wars. Their tactics are to purchase right wing scholars and fund their research.
In reality, Schlesinger’s position was not out of character. In an editorial in the New York Times Barry Gwen, “The C.I.A. and the Culture War,” wrote that Schlesinger’s early career was funded by the agency. The practice was part of the Cold War strategy.
In recent years Texas has been in the eye of the storm. Its fifteen member board of education is intent on promoting a curriculum that cultivates a suspicion of the notion of the separation of church, and indoctrinates students on the alleged contributions of the National Rifle Association to American history.
Texas is important because it in 2011 it had 4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren. The board that selects standards, selects what the children read. Special interests control the board because of a light turn out of voters and because of the contributions of wealthy donors that elect culture warriors.
This is not new. Since the 1960s, the selection of schoolbooks in Texas has been the target of the religious right.
Why do publishers tolerate these standards and demands to censor books? They are in it for the money. The State of Texas pays for the textbooks and the loss of this market could be a financial disaster.
In Arizona and Texas, the Mexican has replaced the communist as the boogeyman.
Witness the idiocy of Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne who justifies the censorship of books and the attack on Mexican American Studies by making absurd accusations that MAS promotes separatism and intends to reconquer Aztlán.
In conclusion, the banning of books or allowing right wing extremist to tell us what students should learn or not learn is thought control. It is undemocratic and we should fight back.
Rodolfo Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. Dr. Acuña writes various opinions and essays on his Facebook page and allows sites to share his thoughts.