Sunday, June 03, 2012

Despite the Breaking Point

Tenemos Que Seguir . . . 
by Amelia M.L. Montes (

We are at the breaking point—whether or not you presently are or have ever been a student or teacher.  All of us are affected by what is happening across the country right now.  On June first, the New York Times’ article on budget cuts regarding California schools described the situation like this:  “Class sizes have increased, courses have been cut and tuition has been raised—repeatedly.  Fewer colleges are offering summer classes.  Administrators rely increasingly on higher tuition from out-of-staters.  And there are signs it could get worse:  If a tax increase proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown is not approved this year, officials say they will be forced to consider draconian cuts like eliminating entire schools or programs.”  (click here for entire article). 

When I taught in the California public school system, the saying was, what happens to education in California happens across the country:  striving for an affordable education for all, innovative teaching practices, whole language, bilingual education, Ethnic Studies programs/departments, an elementary/high school state essay exam vs. objective testing.  The rewards for such excellence in these areas were:  first and foremost, an educated population with a well-rounded understanding of the world or as Paulo Freire has written: “Education . . . becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (from Pedagogy of the Oppressed).  More and more Chicanas/Chicanos and Latinas/Latinos from working class backgrounds were entering colleges and universities. There were many bumps in the road, but the trajectory was one of moving forward.

And that first and second generation have become high school teachers, college and university professors, authors, lawyers, artists, medical practitioners.  On the right side of this “la bloga” link, you will see a listing of Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino authors and it is only a partial listing.  Compared to the handful of writers in the 1950s and 60s, we have certainly grown. 

Those “bumps” along the road, though, have stayed and grown too in profound alarming ways which threaten the present and future generations.  In 1978, a businessman/lobbyist and a political activist (Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann) introduced and passed “Proposition 13” or “People’s Intiative to Limit Property Taxation” which amended the California Constitution to “decrease property taxes by assessing property values at their 1975 value and restricted annual increases of assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2% per year” and to increase any future state taxes, both legislative bodies today need a two-thirds majority vote—and if it goes to a local election, the two-thirds majority vote is also required.  Since 1978, libraries, schools, programs have shut down and the New York Times article (above) only gives credence to the saying: “As California goes, so goes the rest of the country” because the rest of the country (since 1978) has in one way or another passed similar Jarvis/Gann Prop 13 legislation and every time such amendments have passed, libraries, programs, schools have diminished. Click on this link (right here) to read a Time Magazine article from 2009 that discusses the history and the effects of Proposition 13.

In 2003, Nebraska billionaire investor, Warren Buffet said, “If California has troubles, the country has troubles.  If California prospers, the country prospers.”  This past week, Timothy White, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside said “I’d be lying if I said what we offer students hasn’t been changed and that there hasn’t been a degradation of the learning environment.” 

The erosion is now glaring.  Prop 13-like legislation passing over and over again across the country prompts and exacerbates threats and the banning of books and the closing down of Ethnic Studies and bilingual education as we have seen in states such as Arizona. Banning the best education for everyone in this country is putting a stop to creating a fearless, imaginative, strong multi-dimensional and empathetic people. Instead what we are moving toward more than ever is a country that speaks one language, knows minimal mechanics of reading and writing, minimal education on how our government works, minimal knowledge of U.S. History, science, math, minimal knowledge in understanding heterogenous populations. 

We cannot function as an empathetic, powerful society if we do not understand each other. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a powerful text that breaks open those boundaries of segregation.  She wrote:  “To the immigrant mexicano and the recent arrivals, we must teach our history . . . Latinos from Central and South America must know of our struggles . . . Other than a common culture we will have nothing to hold us together.  We need to meet on a broader communal ground.”  Such words are not welcome in various school districts across the country.  The banning of this book and others like it reveals a fear, an inability to practice empathy. 

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mothers and Others:  The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, writes:  “To all the reasons people might have to worry about the future of our species—including the usual depressing litany of nuclear proliferation, global warming, emerging infectious diseases, or crashing meteorites—add one more having to do with just what sort of species our descendants millennia hence might belong to.  If empathy and understanding develop only under particular rearing conditions, and if an ever-increasing proportion of the species fails to encounter those conditions but nevertheless survives to reproduce, it won’t matter how valuable the underpinnings for collaboration were in the past.  Compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish.” 

Anzaldúa’s call and Hrdy’s cautionary statement are important reminders that we must continue to provide everyone with our books, with our complex histories, with the best education we can provide that encourages critical thinking.  This is at the core of the fear:  critical and imaginative thinking.  Thank goodness for our Chicanas/Chicanos and Latinas/Latinos who are now publishing a plethora of bilingual and culturally themed novels, memoirs, poetry, children’s books.  These will carry us forward despite the many bannings and censorships.  But we need to keep these books in print, we need to read and discuss these in our classrooms. And thank goodness for filmmakers who are documenting these important moments in history. (Check out the film Precious Knowledge regarding Arizona's banning of Ethnic Studies.)  

1978 (when the Jarvis legislation passed in California) was 34 years ago and today Nathan Brostrom (executive vice president of business operations for the UC system) says, the UC schools are in the “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” Jarvis has died but his legislation is continuing to wreak havoc in California and across the country.  All the advances we have made can feel as if they are disappearing and I have heard mis compañeras y compañeros say they feel alienated and defeated. This is why I also make it a point to teach, Edén Torres’ book, Chicana Without Apology: The New Chicana Cultural Studies because her words help us stay strong in this atmosphere of continual silencing, banning, budget-cutting of our programs and departments. 

Edén Torres’ writes:  “Eliminating all forms of oppression is an ideal that no single person can hope to achieve—nor can we expect complete agreement.  But a cultural shift does not insist on total cooperation, it only requires the force of strong coalitions willing to work around and respect differences for a larger goal.  It also means dumping distrust and paranoia, accepting that the people who should be our allies really are, even though we may have differences and make mistakes.  Once we begin to see ourselves as part of a larger community seeking transformation, we have no excuse for continuing to act solely on our sense of alienation.  After the revolution, Lucha Corpi tells us in Delia’s Song, ‘That’s when the real struggle begins.’

Keep reading, keep writing, keep teaching! 
Abrazos dear “La Bloga” readers . . .   


Linda Rodriguez said...

Powerful piece, Amelia! Thank you.

Olga said...

Thanks for this piece on education, Amelia. We're (so many of us teachers and students here in Los Angeles) en la lucha ahorita to try and salvage some part of Adult Education, which serves close to 350,000 adults. June 19th is our last day of classes and as of yet, the school board has not given us a definite response regarding what (if any) adult schools will be open in the fall. Those who will be most impacted by these cuts are working-class adults, immigrants, youth of color who didn't make it through conventional high schools. Whether it's adult education in L.A. or Ethnic Studies in Arizona or the rising exclusivity we're seeing in Community Colleges and Universities, education, as you point out, our right to education is being stripped away and the idea of "higher education" is being privatized. I can't think about this country's current educational crisis without also thinking of the trillions of tax dollars wasted on wars during the last decade. Education in this country is truly one major casualty of war.

Hilda said...

This is a wonderful post! Thank you for this important and timely piece, but most of all for some of the history of Ethnic Studies you share here! Mil gracias y pa'lante.