Censorship in Academe, 21st century style

Unfortunately, the banning of books by Mexican Americans in Tucson last week was not an isolated incident.  It’s part of a larger pattern in American education.

At the elementary school level, it takes the form of resisting bilingual education for students whose family language is not English, and—for example—still teaching “Thanksgiving” as though it were the happy, peaceful start of a triumphant positive march towards a shining, splendid American empire.

At the middle school level, it’s about teaching Egyptian history—mummies, anyone?—instead of Native American or Mexican history.  Mummies are safe—there’s no politics left in them, they’ve been dead too long.

In high school, students are asked to stand and pledge allegiance by rote to the American flag representing “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but not asked to interrogate the proposition that liberty and justice really are available to all in our great land.

In undergraduate education, after a brief, highly contested period in the 1980s and 90s when the gates guarding the required curricula were wrenched open to let literature by ethnic minorities and women in, the tides have turned again.

Just as in middle school it’s safer to teach about the ancient Egyptians, in college the safest route is towards ancient Greece.  “After all,” I was once told blandly by a senior (white male) colleague in the course of a heated meeting on the core curriculum, “the Greeks are a minority too.”

The modern Greeks may be struggling, but the ancient Greeks are alive and well and generously represented in curricula throughout the Western world, where ancient figures like Plato, Sophocles and Aristotle still exert remarkable influence.

Meanwhile, graduate schools in the humanities are focused on jazzing up the study of history and literature through fancy digital applications.

I’m as digitally oriented as the next prof, but I won’t support “digital humanities” if it means that we no longer have the time or resources to engage in what I see as the most important functions of the humanities: teaching students how to analyze and wield the tools of narrative and argument; giving them the time and space to explore complex ethical issues; and most of all, empowering them to become informed, autonomous individuals who can research and think for themselves.

In theory, this could be done within a digital framework.  But the problem is that much of the push towards “digital humanities” is coming from the great surge towards online education as a business model for universities.  Of course you can do online education much better if you have high-tech online tools.  No argument there.

The problem is the bigger picture of online education, where tenured professors are being replaced with adjunct faculty who can teach in their pajamas from home, at a fraction of the salary or responsibility and no influence at all over what gets taught.  If you have an army of part-time online instructors working with students from remote locations all over the world, it’s pretty hard to have the kind of discussions that I’m remembering from my department’s deliberations over the core curriculum.

Most decisions over what gets taught in those burgeoning online courses are made by administrators who remain faceless to the instructors, with the result that professors become paid employees rather than professionals who are not only engaged in the process of teaching, but also in the process of deciding what gets taught.

It’s as easy as the push of a button for some administrator to decide that HUM 26X, Chicano/a History, will not be taught, while HUM 25X, History of Ancient Greece, will. And for the most part, no one will even notice.

This is going on all the time.  The incident in Tucson last week, when administrators were so sloppy as to order physical books pulled from the shelves, was a rare slip-up that brought the insidious practice of censorship into the public eye.

Most of the time it’s going on invisibly, under the radar, and so subtly that most of us won’t notice it until all of a sudden we look up and find that there are only a handful of Ethnic Studies Departments or Women’s Studies Departments left in the country, so there are hardly any graduate degrees being offered in those fields, so within a generation the whole hard-won movement to open the curriculum will be gone.

No, I am not over-reacting.  I am not hysterical.  I am not crazy.  Open your eyes, people, and you will see what I’m talking about.  Open your eyes, before it’s too late.

Shades of an American Kristallnacht?

Tonight at dinner the conversation turned to politics, although it seemed that everyone at the table was reluctant to mention the name “Obama”—a sign of the deep disappointment in our erst-while hero.

There was some enthusiasm for the political satire of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who are probably doing more to educate young people in politics than most high schools in America today.

There was derision for the spectacle of the Republican primaries, which I, for one, have been unable to stomach watching—not even for a moment.

And there was deep sadness over the unavoidable truth that now, in the wake of Citizens United, it has become totally legal for rich people to run politicians the same way they might run horses or greyhounds.  Just like that.

Maybe that’s what provides the eerie, zombie-like atmosphere in politics these days. You really have the sense that most politicians, especially the ones at the top echelons of power, are like old-fashioned Kabbalistic golems, animated out of clay by skilled magicians who can control them from afar.

Of course, that’s been going on for a long time.  Remember George Bush, a wind-up man getting remote control instructions through his earphone in the 2004 Presidential debates?

But it’s getting worse and worse.  That’s why I can’t stand to watch Gingrich and Santorum and all the other Republican wax model men mouth their lines on the stage these days.  You know they’ll say whatever they’re told…whatever they think it will take to win.

There is certainly a good chance that one of the Republicans will win.  The Democrats are dispirited and grumpy, not much in the mood to get all fired up about yet another election.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are rabid to take back the White House.  They’ve been busy as hell redistricting to try to gain every electoral advantage, and I have absolutely no faith in the electronic voting machines that they’ve been installing in every town and city in the land.

It’s very possible that Mr. XY Zombie Republican could seize power in November, with the backing of endlessly deep pockets like the Koch brothers, Big Energy, and Big Finance, and the blessing of the Supreme Court.

What then?

If the Republicans controlled all three houses of government, they could ram through the legislation they’ve been concocting during the past decade or so: legislation powering up the assault on the environment, on health, on social services, destroying any kind of safety net for people, animals or the environment.

They could escalate the war on dissidents (like me), who dare to oppose their plans.  In short order, the United States could turn into just another big banana republic, with a military-backed regime of elites governing through the indiscriminate use of fear tactics, with violence applied as necessary to keep the people in line.

Lately I have been re-reading Margaret Atwood’s marvelous sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and finding it chillingly prophetic.  In Atwood’s dystopia, environmental catastrophe has rendered the elites infertile, and pushed them to withdraw into gated communities where food shortages are common, and people are regularly hung in the public square to keep everyone fearful and docile.

The narrator remembers how just before her world fell apart, there were signs of repression: books being banned and burned, identity cards being issued and required, mobility restricted, media censored.  All of a sudden, one fine morning, it was no longer possible for her and her family to get in their car and drive away to seek safety in Canada.  All of a sudden, they were trapped in a nightmare that went quickly from bad to worse.

Augusto Pinochet of Chile

This reminds me also of the many testimonials I have read from Latin America—true stories, not fiction—from the 1970s, when wealthy politicians wielding military power and complete control over the ballot boxes ruled their countries with iron fists, “disappearing” anyone who might remotely be a threat, including thousands of innocent students.  This happened in Chile and Argentina, in Guatemala and El Salvador and many other countries.  Often the shift from democracy to fascist dictatorship happened literally overnight.

As in Germany before the Kristallnacht, none of us here in the U.S. wants to believe that anything could happen to destroy our cherished freedoms, our vaunted  “American way of life.”  We don’t want to admit, even to ourselves, the extent to which our freedoms are already being encroached upon, day by day.

Just last week, for example, there was an outrageous episode in Arizona, where the government declared a whole long list of books by Mexican Americans to be unsuitable for school use, and went so far as to direct the school librarians and teachers to pull them from the shelves, box them up and put them into deep storage.

Among the authors banned are some of my favorite writers—Gloria Anzaldua, Elizabeth Martinez, Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire

Yes, that Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator and free thinker who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a brilliant analysis of the way that traditional education indoctrinates students into conformity and submission to authority.

Freire proposed that instead of a banking style of education, where knowledge is deposited into students, who are then required to spit it back upon demand, education worth its salt should empower students to think for themselves.

Such a simple idea, but so powerful, too.  Education should teach people to think for themselves, and to work with each other to come to consensus on issues of importance to the larger society.

Isn’t that just what the Occupy movements have been trying to do?  If Freire were alive, he would be out there in the thick of the Occupy action, inspiring the young to shake off the false animation of Zombiland, and insist on dancing to their own authentic beat.

This reminds me of another beloved science fiction book, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, where the sinister IT controls all the inhabitants of a city by forcing them to conform to ITS rhythm.  Their hearts pulse to ITS rhythm, their eyes twirl to ITS rhythm, their thoughts are entirely subsumed by IT.  The only way to break ITS control is to think for oneself, to be creative, resilient and determined.

The children Meg and Charles Wallace succeed in rescuing their father from the clutches of IT by dint of their own powers of creativity and love, with a little help from some eccentric and freethinking guides.

Will the science fiction tale we’re living through now have that kind of happy ending?

Oh yeah, it’s not fiction, is it.

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