In 2010 the Arizona legislature created a law designed to deter the teaching of a Mexican American Studies course in Tucson schools by cutting State funding to districts with courses that, among other things, “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” After a finding by the state court in 2011 and under the threat of a $15 million fine, the Tucson district was forced to stop utilizing a course that was available to all students, was effectively closing the achievement gap, and was successful in helping Latino students attend college. One aspect of enforcement that the district decided on was banning the use of many books that were a part of the Mexican American Studies program from schools.
I was introduced to the Tucson curriculum issue in Professor Mazzie’s first semester Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing 1 class last fall. Our assignment was to write a brief memo on whether the Tucson course was in violation of A.R.S. § 15-112. The constitutionality of the Arizona law itself has since been called into question under the purview of a federally appointed special master who is overseeing the Tucson School District’s mandated desegregation. It was satisfying to see, earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agree with my position in Professor Mazzie’s class that the curriculum was not necessarily a per se violation of A.R.S. § 15-112 anyway.
Before the Ninth Circuit ruling, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire is pictured above) was one of the textbooks ordered removed from all classrooms in Tucson. In it, amidst some dialectic jargon, Freire provides an effective critique of the predominant form of education used in the U.S., calling it the “banking” method whereby students are conceived as receptacles for the knowledge with which educators fill them. “Banking education resists dialogue . . . treats students as objects of assistance . . . inhibits creativity . . . .” (83). “The student records, memorizes, and repeats.” (71).
The alternative to the banking method is what Freire calls “problem posing,” in the service of helping students develop a critical consciousness. Problem posing involves the teacher engaged in a dialogue with students, both learning from each other and creatively approaching subjects and problems that surround them in their lives. Students “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” (Id.)
Freire’s writings do indeed advocate for the development of a “praxis,” or curiosity that leads to reflection and, finally, to action addressing the problems the student observes in the world around them. As American writer and educator J. Mitchell Morse observed: “To the extent that the establishment depends on the inarticulacy of the governed, good writing is inherently subversive.” (The Irrelevant English Teacher, pg. vii, 1972.) The same may be said of effective education. Developing thoughtful, articulate and engaged citizens seems to be a worthy end for public education to serve, but Arizona lawmakers are perhaps more fearful of the prospect.
It is less clear why other books were banned. The House On Mango Street, a collection of short vignettes by Mexican–American writer Sandras Cisneros that convey memories of growing up in Chicago, seems to me an incredibly innocuous book. Perhaps the district, under the scrutiny of the new law, was concerned that students not be exposed to the humanity of minority or disenfranchised groups. “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1823.)
Returning to my Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research class, these concepts begged for application to the law school experience. Despite the improvements brought by Christopher Columbus Langdell, the “banking” style is still the principal form of legal instruction. Often, it seems, the paper deposits are made by the truckload. This may at first glance seem a necessity since practicing the law today involves digesting and understanding a substantial amount of ideas and vernacular. Freire’s response is simple: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (72). That is, education does not take place by way of stifling students.
I came upon a more provocative characterization of law school pedagogy in the novel In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt III. The book is ostensibly a D.C. thriller but mostly explores the experiences of a handful of sophomoric attorneys as their understanding of the profession expands. A poignant passage submits:
This was the service the law schools gave, witting or no, that they taught their students to follow authority and to believe in a legal reasoning that supplanted their intuitions about justice. To use that reasoning in the service of any cause, to argue positions they despised, which had the inevitable result of cutting them loose from the positions they loved. Act and it shall produce unbelief. The firms provided the training; the firms taught the law. Law school just made students ready to accept it.
The more general movement toward increasingly standardized education implicates more than just assimilation. To my mind it is closer to suicide. The question can be posed: Is it more destructive to encourage young citizens to engage in critical discourse or to deter them from doing so? The answer will no doubt say something about our disposition toward the status quo and the propriety of education. Is the analysis any different when it comes to the subject of teaching law? In educating young advocates of justice I wonder if we prefer to produce “more of the same” rather than run the risk of inciting uncomfortably progressive thought? Setting aside preference, in today’s increasingly complex, interdependent and, simultaneously, myopic world, what does civilization actually need?