Monday, January 16, 2012

Rethinking Columbus Banned in Arizona

The recent spate of book bannings in the Tucson, Arizona should be a wake up call for all who care about multicultural education and academic freedom in our schools.

The list of banned books range from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States to Rethinking Columbus, published here in Milwaukee by Rethinking Schools.  The bannings stem from an Arizona law passed last year that, among other things, banned ethnic studies programs in K-12 schools.

The banned books, according to a district spokesperson quoted Jan. 13, [highlight salon blog] will be “cleared from all classrooms, boxed up and sent to the Textbook Depository for storage.” One on-the-scene report indicated  “banned books were seized from [students’] classrooms and out of their hands.”

The banning of Rethinking Columbus stands in sharp contrast to the dozens of public school systems that have bought thousands of copies of the book since it was first published in 1991. Bill Bigelow, who co-edited Rethinking Columbus along with Barbara Miner and Bob Peterson (me), quotes from the introduction to Rethinking Columbus in his recent blog:

 “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children’s beliefs about society. For many youngsters the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The ‘discovery of America’ is children’s first curricular exposure to the encounter between two races. As such, a study of Columbus is really a study about us—how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people around the world.”

Bigelow writes that the last time one of his books was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986. He speculates that the book was banned “because it included excerpts from a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Confronting massive opposition at home and abroad, the white minority government feared for its life in 1986.”

“It’s worth asking what the school authorities in Arizona fear today,” Bigelow writes.

I personally have never had one of my books banned before. I guess it’s a badge of honor. But it’s a badge no one in this country should want to wear.

What’s most disturbing is the banning’s broader context, in particular Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation and the move across the country toward scripted curriculum that too often ignores students’ cultural heritages and that undermines the ability to promote critical thinking. On a more positive note, however, the banning can be seen as the flailing of small-minded bigots attempting to derail multicultural, anti-racist curriculum. In this sense, the move is similar to the anti-gay rantings of Santorum and Company. 

The Tucson banning is a an outgrowth of an Arizona law passed last year that bans k-12 schools from teaching anything that may be interpreted as promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race or class of people. The ban also prohibits courses that are designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group, or that advocate ethnic solidarity.

This has led to the termination of Mexican American literature courses and the banning of several books.

Information on the list of banned books is still unfolding —it’s  not something the school district is making public. However, a blog by Nambe Pueblo writer Debbie Reese listed several books. They range from Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians and Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven, to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.

Ethnic studies programs have shown to have positive impact on students. This was the conclusion by scholar Christine Sleeter in her recent study, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies. She states, “There is considerable research evidence that well designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.”

Specific data in Tucson confirm these findings. According to a Tucson Unified School District report issued March 11, 2011, TUSD's Mexican American Studies program give students a measurable advantage over non-MAS students in passing standardized AIMS reading and writing tests, and that MAS students graduate at higher levels than their non MAS counterparts.”

Educators should demand that Arizona officials lift their prohibition of ethnic studies classes and cease their book banning.  We should also examine our own curricula, textbooks and student learning objectives to see if we are adequately addressing issues of our community’s cultural diversity, the history of racism and struggle against its current forms.

Ironically, the Arizona book banning comes at the time when many people are celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

These developments in Arizona remind us all that much work is to be done – in Arizona and in our own communities – before we realize King’s dream.


A last note on Dr. ML King.  As Barbara Miner points out in her forth coming book, Lessons from the Heartland, Milwaukee, schools and the fight for America’s future, just months after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King visited Milwaukee in January 1964. He publicly addressed the issue of Milwaukee’s schools and agreed that residential segregation should not be used “as an excuse for perpetuating de facto segregation” in all schools. In a prescient comment, he also noted, “But honesty impels me to admit that the school problem cannot be solved permanently until the housing problem is solved.” Milwaukee, which has the infamous reputation as the country’s most-segregated metropolitan region, might want to take note as it celebrates MLKing Day.


  1. I am surprised that there was not a book burning on the playground!

  2. Hegemony!!!!! Good thing these books aren't banned in college and the library!!!! Or does that come next?

  3. Folks, we are in dark times. Thinkin' we all need to tip the scales back in the right direction somehow.

  4. Thanks for this article from a reader here in Tucson, the belly of this particular beast (anti-immigrant racism deluxe).