Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson

By Bill Bigelow

Rethinking Columbus bannedImagine our surprise.

Rethinking Schools learned today that for the first time in its more-than-20-year history, our book Rethinking Columbus was banned by a school district: Tucson, Arizona. According to journalist Jeff Biggers, officials with the Tucson Unified School District ordered that teachers pull the book from their classrooms, evidently as an outcome of the school board’s 4-1 vote this week to abolish the Mexican American Studies program.

As I mentioned to Biggers when we spoke, the last time a book of mine was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986, when the regime there banned the curriculum I’d written, Strangers in Their Own Country, likely 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.

I called the Tucson schools this morning seeking a statement about why they ordered Rethinking Columbus removed from classrooms. The superintendent’s office referred me to Cara Rene, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the school district. Rene has not yet returned my two phone calls.

For the record, Rethinking Columbus is Rethinking Schools’ top-selling book, having sold well over 300,000 copies. And over the years many school districts have not banned, but have purchased Rethinking Columbus for use with students. These include: Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ont., Atlanta, New York City, Anchorage, Alaska, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Oakland, San Diego, Portland, Maine, Washington, DC, Cincinnati; Rochester, NY, Cambridge, Mass., Missoula, Montana, and the state of Maryland, as well as smaller towns like Stillwater, Minnesota; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; and Estes, Colorado.

We published the first edition of Rethinking Columbus back in September of 1991, on the eve of 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas—what the Chicago Tribune promised would be the “most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Rethinking Schools was determined to provide teachers with resources to prompt a more critical approach to the commemoration.

In our introduction to that first edition of the book (edited by Bob Peterson, Barbara Miner, and me) we wrote, “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.”

Twenty years later, these still seem like pretty sound reasons to “rethink Columbus.” And we would ask school officials in Tucson: Why not rethink Columbus?

What’s to fear? Rethinking Columbus offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students consider perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum. For example, in 30 years of teaching, virtually all my high school students had heard of the fellow who is said to have discovered America: Christopher Columbus. However, none had heard of the people who discovered Columbus: the Taínos of the Caribbean. That fact underscores the importance of teachers having the resources to offer a fuller history to their students. Further, it points out the importance of developing teaching materials that ask students to interrogate the official curriculum about what (and who) it remembers and what (and who) it ignores—and why?

Of course, the suppression of our book is only a small part of the effort by Arizona school officials to crush the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. The program itself exemplifies an effort to address critical questions about stories sorely lacking in today’s corporate-produced textbooks and standardized curriculum. Students in the Mexican American Studies classes will now be dispersed to other classes, according to the resolution passed this week by the governing board of Tucson schools.

Learn more about the important struggle to preserve this program at Save Ethnic Studies in Arizona, and in articles by Jeff Biggers, at Common Dreams and below. And see my Rethinking Schools blog, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War.”

Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, co-editor with Bob Peterson of Rethinking Columbus, and author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.


Other links:

By Jeff Biggers:

Mexican American Studies Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders

AZ Ed Chief Compares Mexican American Students to Hitler Jugend

AZ Attorney General Says Ethnic Studies “Must be Destroyed”

Precious Knowledge

Profile in Courage: Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce

Why AZ’s Ethnic Studies Should Matter to All Educators

AZ’s New Civil Rights Movement: Ethnic Studies

75 thoughts on “Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson

  1. Congratulations are in order Bill. Its a precious group of writers who do something worthwhile enough to force those in power to attempt to silence them.

  2. The problem with the classes was not about what was being taught, but rather about HOW they were teaching. The program had no set parameters and no oversite. The teachers were wildcards creating students who suddenly hated “whitey” for all the injustices that have happened throughout history. Is Mexican American Studies a worthwhile class? A resounding yes. Was it being taught correctly? NO! When the class has an actual curriculum set and instructors who can teach without prejudice themselves, I believe it will be welcomed back by the state and district. When ALL students feel welcome and safe in the class, that will be an acheivement. That was not the case, that was why people wanted it shut down. We want our children to know what happened, we want them to strive for those things to never happen again, we don’t want our children attacking each other after school based on their own opinions and color. These classes in Tucson were not teaching history, they were teaching kids to hate each other.

    1. Having watched a snippet from one of the classes (the Precious Knowledge segment), I was impressed by the tone set from the first minute of class. I was equally impressed by watching the students who took over a school board meeting some months ago. What I saw, and what I’ve read of in the many articles about these classes, showed that students were emphatically not being taught to hate anyone, but rather to respect themselves work together with others for a better world.

  3. This is a little misleading ” is only a small part of the effort by Arizona school officials to crush the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. ” Please clarify the difference between the local Tucson Unifed School District that was targeted by the state level and really Maricopa (Phoenix) based politicians, including the state Superintendent John Huppenthal. I guess he is a AZ schools official. The TUSD school board was threatened with a crippling $15million loss in monies from the state, retroactive to August if they didn’t end MAS. This has been a long ongoing fight. This is part of a larger battle here – the crushing of the public school system. It is all despicable- banning books, telling only the history of one group of victors, ignoring the student needs and the culture of our beautiful city. Apologies if I misinterpreted your statement.

  4. PLEASE don’t blame Tucson Unified School District for this! Under the pushing of our former State Superintendent of Schools (now the State Attorney General), Tom Horne, the State of Arizona, in its infinite racism, passed a law a couple of years ago that was specifically–SPECIFICALLY!–aimed at making TUSD’s Ethnic Studies program illegal. We have been fighting it, but recently a court upheld the law, and the new State Superintendent of Schools immediately promised to cut $12 million from TUSD’s budget RIGHT NOW, with huge cuts to follow next year, should the program not be pulled. We’ve already absorbed outrageous cuts (AZ has moved, I believe, from 48th to 50th place in public school funding), and another cut just…couldn’t…be…handled. There’s just no question.

    So, pending an appeal, we educators, parents, and most of all students in Tucson are trapped. We fought, we did all we could, and we lost.

  5. What are they afraid of? I’ve used “Encounter”, a picture book written from the Tainos’ POV, in my classroom for a number of years. It gives us an alternative to the Columbus story. Students enjoy discussing the differences in the two accounts.

    1. Between Jane Yolen (“Encounter”) and Eve Bunting (too many to list here!), teachers have been blessed with some incredible books that bring home “the rest of the story.”

  6. My district just banned The House on Mango Street from our middle school curriculum. One of the reasons for this ban was that the novel deals with “social issues.” We are living in frightening times with decision makers ignorant of the founding principles of our country. It’s hard to not be discouraged, but those of us who still believe in the Bill of Rights need to collectively be heard.

      1. A Woman Hollering Creek is also written by the same author, Sandra Cisneros. I think that book as well offers an insight.

  7. TUSD is not innocent in this matter. I have not yet seen the list yet, but I believe 4 of my books are on the list. Two are confirmed: Justice: A Question of Race and The X in La Raza. Plus two more.

    for more info go to:

    TUSD has been caving for the last two years… the “judge” who ruled is an an administrative law judge… which means he is part of the state, not part of the independent judiciary. The state commissioned an independent audit (Cambium) which gave the MAS program 2 thumbs up and recommended that it be expanded. Not liking the results, that’s when the state super of schools turned to the ALJ. He liked his finding.

    So its actually the TUSD governing board that caved, with the assistance of the TUSD superintendent. TUSD board members are vicious, this in a district that is 62% Mexcan American. This is the same district that sicced some 200 police officers on the audience on May 3. This included SWAT officers, helicopters, bomb squad, and fully equipped riot control officers. 7 women were arrested for speaking, and several students and community members were beaten. Of course, nobody held accountable for this.

    Their biggest mistake thus far has been this banned book list. That has and is catapulting this issue to international levels. Will be in touch. Dr. Cintli:

  8. Wow. I must buy this book!! Any book that can stir up such a controversy must be worth reading. 🙂

    I want to learn about the whole history of the world and our country, not just through the eyes of those who dominate. Learning needs to be complete and truthful, not incomplete and manipulative to create little drones.

  9. @ Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez: Whether TUSD is “innocent in this matter” or not, this was a school district with one of the most successful and progressive ethnic studies programs in the nation, and this program was specifically targeted by legislators. You’re barking up the wrong tree. The problem is the state government of Arizona. TUSD might have fought harder, but they didn’t ask for this.

    @ Bill Bigelow: I have a lot of respect for your work as an author and educator but this blog post completely neglects to mention the substantial, important context in which this decision was made. It was precisely TUSD’s choice to bring books like yours into the classroom, and its demonstrated successes as a result of making that choice, that caused the Arizona legislature to pass this law and to take the aggressive action that forced this decision. Please take the time to read up on what’s happening–your blog post as it’s currently written makes it look like you just woke up and discovered this battle over a year in progress.

    1. Shannon, Thanks for your comments on my blog post. I am aware of much of the history leading up to the actions taken last week by Tucson’s governing board, including the order to confiscate books like Rethinking Columbus used in the Mexican American Studies program. See my Rethinking Schools December 29 blog, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country–Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War,” which discusses administrative law judge Lewis Kowal’s recent ruling. I realize that last week’s actions by Tucson school authorities have a longer history and that authorities did not act unilaterally. On late Friday, the school district’s director of communications, Cara Rene, got back to me to explain the actions that the district took with respect to the books. I asked her why the district felt the need to actually physically remove all these teaching materials in light of the governing board’s own declaration that the curriculum should expose students to “diverse viewpoints.” I pointed out that Rethinking Columbus, for one, is a book that is used in many “traditional” U.S. history programs, and is certainly consistent with promoting “diverse viewpoints.” She said that these books were “evidence” — as if the teaching going on there was a crime — and thus had to be entirely removed. All this to say that, yes, I’m sure that Tucson school authorities were under tremendous pressure, but as I see it, they have dramatically over-reacted, and have treated teachers and students shabbily by denying them access to so much important curriculum. Thanks for your thoughts on my piece, and for your support of Rethinking Schools.

  10. Bill–you are my hero! Any time there is a need to ban such important literature as Rethinking Columbus, it makes the world a little more informed just by the very nature of the media attention. This proves there is still a need for discussion after 20 years of publication and a need to revisit this staple topic in America’s history from preschool upward.

  11. The Trial of Columbus and the The “Discovery Project” where I “stole” (discovered) items out of a student’s packback were the centerpieces of my European Exploration Unit-in the third grade. We later changed it to World Exploration. I’m now retired but owe much to Bill Bigelow and Rethinking Columbus. Parents were initially upset when I first introduced them but later appreciative of the other (real) perspectives and loved The Trial as an incredible experiential learning tool about our justice system.
    Thanks, Bill, Tuscon is screwwloseon.

  12. The flip side of this disturbing news is that the “banned” book will now become cool among kids – they will seek it out and try to figure out what is so offensive. I say this somewhat tongue in cheek – but don’t be surprised if it gets more attention now. The “ban” is already creating a buzz online. I know I’ll pull it out and use it more frequently in my middle school classroom.

  13. One of the problems with banning of material is that the wealth of information, is thrown out. Particularly when the banned material corrects previous mistaken ideas. One must learn from past mistakes, not continue to enforce them so someones “toes don’t get stepped on.” What is “true” today may be found to be false tomorrow. Knowledge is not dogmatic, it is flexible and must change as better data is found.

  14. Let’s be clear no book “banning” was involved. The issues are more serious than false claims of book “banning.” In reality, no book has been banned in the USA for about half a century.

    If book “banning” is one of the arguments, it only telegraphs that the remainder of the arguments may be similarly specious. I know that is not what is intended. So I respectfully suggest dropping references to false claims of book “banning.”

    Even the ALA’s own resolution in support of the curriculum does not use either word, instead opting for “restriction of access to educational materials,” which may be accurate.

    So I strongly suggest removing any false claims of “banning” from any of your arguments regarding the curriculum. Social justice is great, but using false arguments to support false claims does not do social justice any justice.

    1. Dan, thanks for your thoughts. Here’s what Tucson school officials admit doing: entering classrooms (in some cases during class while students were present), boxing up books that were part of the Mexican American Studies curriculum, and carting them off to a storage facility. (The district spokesperson said the books were “evidence.”) A small number of these books remain in Tucson school libraries. What the school district banned is students’ relationship to these books — the books were banned from the Mexican American Studies curriculum, a curriculum that deals with issues of race, class, ethnicity, oppression, solidarity … So, if students can find a book in the library, they can still read it, but they cannot study it with their teachers or peers — they cannot engage with it. Rethinking Columbus, in particular, is a book primarily about critical teaching — it’s not just words on the page to be read and contemplated. It’s to be “done” as a group. The district has banned the pedagogy which gives meaning to and draws meaning from the books. No doubt, “banning books” does not fully capture exactly what is going on in Tucson, but nor do I think it misrepresents it. Bill Bigelow

  15. “Haniyah’s Story” and “Teaching Haniya”

    It’s important for teacher to get to know their students. Teachers get to know their student given time and during activities such as the activity the teacher had given in the reading. When she asked her students to interview someone about their encounter with the police. She learned a lot about her students. She learned how different their stories were and also about how opened the students were in sharing stories. As teachers we also have to be empathetic to students’ lives and understand how crucial it is to be supportive to students when they need you most. When children act out teachers should look for reasons why the student is acting out. Sometimes all it takes is someone to ask the students what is bothering them or what is wrong. When children feel you care they will be willing to open up. The fact that a child may come from a home in which a parent or family member is incarcerated or is a felon affect how they view themselves and how they think others view them. As teachers we need to turn the situation in to a learning situation. If students are aware of the issues of that student, they are more likely to be supportive of the student. Let’s hope that no child will ever feel they are not able to be successful because a close person in their family or friend fell into the wrong path, let’s make them feel they are their own person.

  16. It is always important to teach a different perspective. During my school years the teachers would barely discuss anything with the class and would just hand out photocopies to be completed and handed back.

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