The Attack on Ethnic Studies in Education
A new law in Arizona that bans ethnic studies programs in public schools and universities denies young people access to a crucial store of knowledge they need for their future success, says Autry
lecturer Paul Apodaca.
“It’s a whole library full of new ideas that are not in the classic disciplines,” Apodaca said. “Can we afford not to have access to that knowledge?”
The ban is part of a strict new Arizona immigration measure whose enforcement is partially on hold as it wends its way through the courts. But the ethnic studies ban went into effect on New Year’s Day, and this week, state officials ordered Tucson schools to shut down the classes or lose state funding.
Apodaca, a Navajo/Mixton Indian who is associate professor of American studies at Chapman University in Orange and an adjunct professor of American Indian studies at UCLA, has long been the lecturer-in-residence for the Autry’s American Indian Lecture Series.
His latest lecture, on how the technological advances of American Indians influenced the Industrial Revolution and the scientific age, will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Autry’s Heritage Court.
Apodaca believes that, far from restricting what and how students learn, government officials ought to allow for different approaches to thinking of and solving problems.
“Our understanding of the Americas … is very different than the European approach,” said Apodaca, who holds a master’s degree in American Indian studies and a doctorate in folklore and mythology from UCLA.
Opponents of ethnic studies have long characterized them as “the struggle of the unquiet poor or the disgruntled minorities,” Apodaca said. Unfortunately, defenders fall into a trap, he believes, by focusing on the alleged political aims of ethnic studies, rather than pointing out that future American doctors, lawyers, engineers and theoreticians can ill afford to ignore an entire knowledge base.
In an atmosphere where the traditional European disciplines are proving increasingly inadequate to deal with the complex societal issues, American educators — who created the largely inter-disciplinary approach of ethnic studies programs — should not turn their backs on this alternative paradigm, Apodaca said.
“We recognized that the disciplinary model used by Europeans did not account for all the complexities that go on and interact with each other (in society),” Apodaca said. “As a result, there was knowledge that was being lost. There were ideas and theories and inventions and technologies and all sorts of things that were being ignored because they did not fit into the classic disciplines.”
These ignored technologies are part of what he explores in his upcoming lecture, in which he argues that technologies fostered by the original inhabitants of the American continent, such as the hybridizing of the grass known as Teosinte into what we know today as maize or corn, and the development by Indians of crops such as cotton and tobacco, changed the course of history in both the Old and New Worlds.
“One of the first gifts given to Columbus was a ball of cotton string handed to him by an Indian in a canoe,” Apodaca said. “It is the Indians that had cotton clothing and it is the cotton that created America. Cotton was king.”
Apodaca does not see ethnic studies as a way of promoting the rights of any one set of human beings but as a way of tackling problems that may have eluded conventional solutions. And he still remembers the struggle to establish ethnic studies curricula during the sixties and seventies at UCLA, in which he took an active part.
“This has been going on for forty years,” he said of the effort to do away with ethnic studies. “Since we started we’ve been fighting this.”