By Bill Bigelow
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.