Not too long ago, a multi-ethnic education program in Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) came under aggressive accusations of discrimination by district authorities. The attacks (which even included TUSD administrators threatening teachers with financial repercussions) ended with the program being terminated and its books and resource materials pulled from TUSD classrooms.
This sounds like the recent measures the Arizona State Legislature took against TUSD’s Mexican-American Studies (MAS) programs, right? But this other ban focused on a different brand of Ethnic Studies, the Middle East, and preceded the current MAS education controversy by roughly 30 years.
The target of the criticism, the University of Arizona’s then-named Near Eastern Center, had been coordinating an educational program within TUSD schools through a spring 1983 course for teachers called “Survey History of the Middle East”. The educational materials were “reportedly much in demand in the elementary and junior-high-school classrooms,” according to an article in the July 1, 1983 Tucson Citizen.
The criticisms resulted in an official investigation and TUSD released its report in mid-September of 1983 concluding that the educational program material should be banned from use in TUSD classrooms due to “discrimination” and “bias”. The report’s author, interviewed by the Arizona Daily Star, cited as justification the fact that “[t]he Israeli government apparently was not contacted for materials.” Failing to consult Israel to help draw up the Tucson curriculum therefore resulted in a “significant bias…of a decisively anti-Israel and pro-Arab character,” in the words of the report. The recommended course of action included urging TUSD to “prohibit teachers from using biased [the] materials” and that “salary-increment pay for the course not be granted.”
Robert Gimello, head of the UA department that housed the Near Eastern Center, expressed the ultimately vain “hope that district policies are not decided on because of uncritical submission to pressure-group tactics.” Nonetheless, the TUSD School Board in its mid-October meeting of that year officially adopted the ban on the program in its public schools.
Nearly 30 years later, on May 3, 2011, elder Chicana educator and community activist, Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, spoke to TUSD board members protected by heavily armed police forces at a militarized TUSD school board meeting. The week prior nine Ethnic Studies youth had chained themselves to TUSD board members’ chairs and the dais in order to prevent the board from voting to dismantle the MAS program, which they eventually did in January 2012.
Rubio Goldsmith told the board members they should know that, like local Tohono O’odham indigenous communities, people like her have been in Tucson for decades. “I have been through many superintendents, many administrators, and many boards. And you will be gone, and we will be here.”
Community supporters of the beloved but liquidated MAS program can take heart from the lesson of the current status of Middle East Studies in TUSD. The once-terminated program is not only back in TUSD classrooms, but it is expanded to serve public school students and teachers, according to the director of today’s UA Center for Middle East Studies (CMES), the successor of the Near Eastern Center, and once-banned books and materials are now readily available from an extensive UA Middle East Studies library.
The history of Middle East Studies in Tucson affirms that education itself, and the community enriched by it, has the power to outlive and outlast any arbitrary power that tries to repress it. No matter how powerful or how intimidating those in authority may prove themselves to be, community longevity is a lively power no government or school board can hold back.