As Caliban said to his oppressor, Prospero, in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “You taught me language and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse.”
“The Tempest” is one text, among many, that may be forbidden by the state-mandated termination of Arizona’s Mexican-American studies program.
Shakespeare’s work remains relatively safe from censorship, provided themes of “race, ethnicity and oppression” are kept outside the classroom. In accordance with ARS 15-112, seven unlucky books pertinent to Mexican-American history have been barred.
Cara Rene, Tucson Unified School District’s Director of Communications, told KOLD News the reported bans of books such as “The Tempest” are “completely false.” While they “have been moved to storage,” Rene affirms that students will still have access to those books. In other words, the seven books she mentions have been prohibited, but texts like “The Tempest” remain viable options when teachers plan their curriculums in accordance with state law.
Anti-censorship proponents often argue their case with a pathos that appeals to the public’s sense of curiosity. Censorship becomes a matter of public access. Why are some things visible to the public, when others undergo such rigor to remain hidden? Those who oppose censorship appear to be fueled by hysteria and nervous suspicion, most aptly embodied by conspiracy theorists; or else they become vigilantes of “natural” rights and turn censorship into important, but ultimately inconsequential, First Amendment issues backed by porn stars and flag burners.
The key issue with the state’s decision to ban ethnic studies and to censor books dealing with oppression is not that students can no longer have access to information. What is central to the debate is not necessarily censorship, but how the censoring of books stops the voice of young voters from progressing. Such legislation stunts the voices of indisputably marginalized and “oppressed,” groups of people, but it also prevents other voices from identifying signs of oppression.
By omitting Mexican-American history, and other “non-white-American” histories, Arizona legislators send the message that non-white citizens aren’t included in American history: They never had a voice, they never found the need for one and they probably won’t want one today.
When students, like those in the classroom of Curtis Acosta, are unable to develop a voice, they default to familiar stereotypes that they can’t graduate high school because of “the way they look.” They become further mired in the sociopolitical conditions that make it hard for them to achieve. John Huppenthal, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, has accused TUSD of poorly “serving low-income minority students,” but hasn’t exactly been a great example himself: He abolished programs that may have actually begun to bridge the proverbial achievement gap.
The “language” that Propspero teaches Caliban in “The Tempest” is the language of the colonizer. The new “language” we will learn as ordained by the State of Arizona, is one of ignorance and intolerance. The Arizona law reinforces oppression because teachers won’t be allowed to say that one ever existed. If we find the history of the oppressed offensive and we exalt the legacy of those who oppress, we have truly mastered fluency in the dialogue of ignorance.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org