Jose Gonzalez and UNIDOS

            Our visit with Jose Gonzalez, former Mexican-American Studies (MAS) teacher, and United Non-discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (UNIDOS), raised far more questions and trains of thought that I can begin to enumerate here. One of the most expansive themes that came up in those visits was education (in its various forms and functions). I plan to weave my own experience and understanding throughout the conversations we had in class.
            One place our conversation resided for a while was about the role and function of education in society. We got onto this subject mostly through the discussion of charter schools, although of course in talking about MAS classes and their pedagogy we were also discussing these issues. Being asked about charter schools, Jose told us that, in his opinion, they are not a good or viable option because they make a good education a privilege and not a right. If a quality education must be paid for it will be the elite who can and will pay for that education, and that denies the section of society that cannot pay for education the hope of being “well educated.”
            Why is “well educated” in quotation marks? Well, it’s largely because, after almost 16 consecutive years of time spent in classrooms, I still have a hazy idea of what it means to be well educated. This, despite the fact that, growing up in Chicago, I went to a magnet program for grade school, the number one high school in the state of Illinois[1](and currently 25th in the nation[2]), and currently attend the 65th liberal arts institution in the United States.[3]The high school I went to was technically public, being a “selective enrollment” high school (students are accepted based on their score on an elective standardized test). My educational credentials are significant on paper, but how does that relate what I was taught, how I was taught it, and how that was controlled by the larger system that educated me?
            I’ll explain more, and attempt to shy away from the overly philosophical. I guess my question about education has to do with the larger pedagogical goals. These are goals that can be radically different in the classroom and in the city council, as the example of MAS classes illustrates. In my Intro to Women’s/Gender/Sexuality studies course last semester at Earlham, the class read a book called Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework.[4]The book uses education as its integrating theme, weaving in analyses of race, class, gender, and sexuality and their intersections. Lynn Weber, the author, lays out multiple educational models: whom they’re for, their goals, and how they function in the classroom. Without the text in front of me I know I’m paraphrasing dangerously, but I do remember that the “lower” models emphasizes rote learning and discipline as goals (stay at your desk, memorize formulas, don’t ask questions), and the higher models focus on discovery and critical thinking. This was certainly my high school experience, where our math class focused not on memorizing formulas but developing the formulas ourselves from word problems of real-life problems for which there were mathematical solutions. A crucial element of these multiple systems of education is the number and type of bodies that occupy each one. The lower-level, discipline-based models are occupied by the majority of society, and contain mostly people of color, lower class, and queer folks. A smaller number of primarily white, upper class, and heterosexual folks populate the upper educational echelons. These discipline-based models are components of things like the “school to prison pipeline”[5]whereby public school students are funneled into the criminal detention system. Jose brought this up when he mentioned the disparity in what the state will spend to educate a student versus incarcerate someone (Arizona currently spends approximately $16,000 more to incarcerate someone per year than they spend on public education).[6]
            Jose told us that his model of teaching MAS is right there in Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, and that he aims to teach his students to think critically.[7]This seems incredibly significant when considering Jose taught public high school, and Tucson Unified School District student body is overwhelmingly comprised of people of color (73% of the population, 57% of whom are Hispanic).[8]These are not the typical demographics that receive this type of education, according to the educational system presented by Weber. The MAS program, with educational models like Freire’s, did what no other program in the country could do or has done since: closed the achievement (or as Jose prefers to call it, opportunity) gap for students.[9]And yet, it was defunded. What does that say about the larger system of education? It seems to me that it suggests that despite the improvement in test scores and graduation rates, any program that threatens the educational system by which critical thinking skills are regulated will be shut down. It furthermore seems significant to me that the bodies receiving this education include a demographic majority of students of color, who are less likely or able to access critical pedagogy under the current system.
            The Tucson Unified School District, in their cancelation of the MAS program, seems to be intent on preserving the status quo for education in Tucson. This status quo suggests that a good education emphasizing critical thinking should not be readily or publicly available to the whole of society. Students of color (although due to the focus of the campaign, it is important that it is only Mexican-American students) should not have public access to their history taught by educators who strive to teach them to use their minds to achieve their goals and love themselves. The view of an educational future without MAS is a bleak reality, although I believe it would be an insult to the educators, students, and community who rallied around the program to assume that this is where the struggle will be left.

– Genevieve Beck-Roe

[1] “Top Ranked IL Schools.” US News and World Report.  US News and World Report LP.
2013. Web. 14 November 2013.
[2] “2013 America’s Best High Schools.” The Daily Beast. The Newsweek/Daily Beast LLC.
2013. Web. 14 November 2013
[3] “National Liberal Arts College Rankings.” US News and World Report.  US News and World
Report LP. 2013. Web. 14 November 2013.
[4] Weber, Lynn. Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
[5] “What Is The School-To-Prison Pipeline?” Racial Justice. ACLU. Web. 14 November 2013.
[6] Yellin, Tal. “Education vs prison costs.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network. Web. 14
November 2013.
[7] Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000. Print.
[8] “Ethnic/Gender Enrollment Breakdown for Instructional Day 40.” TUSDStats. Tucson
Unified School District. Web. 14 November 2013.
[9] “Need to know: Banned in Arizona.” PBS. 15 February 2013. Web. 7 November 2013.

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