Last Thursday the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) screened the film Precious Knowledge. This film focuses on the Mexican American Studies Program (MASP) at Tucson High School during its final year before Arizona lawmakers passed a bill to abolish ethnic studies programs in the state of Arizona. This film is powerful and leads the viewer through a range of emotions to process quickly and in rapid succession.
First I felt joy at witnessing the students' discovery and growing empowerment in the classroom as they become co-creator's of knowledge along with their impassioned and masterful teachers. Hearing them question, watching them be pushed to be better, think better, the recognition of themselves and their communities in the curriculum: it is the why and how of learning. Predictably, that feeling quickly gave way to crushing anger as state lawmakers turn the full force of their attentions towards abolishing the Mexican American Studies Program and other ethnic studies initiatives in the state. Blatant racism framed the lawmakers' discourse about the nature of ethnic studies as well as their comments and approach towards the students and teachers involved. A young woman speaking in defense of the MASP was called "articulate" and other students were referred to as "thugs." The protesters were "those people" and frequently placed outside the category of "American" no matter the reality of their citizenship status and cultural history predating settler history in the Southwest.
Predictably, the language of neoliberalism and color-blindness was in full effect in these debates which positions any conversation about race or racialized inequity to be itself racist, or "reverse racist" as the lawmakers repeatedly appealed to. The rhetoric and the argumentation style in the film are familiar and frightening. We see it on our own campus from debates about the Chief (our retired, racist mascot that never seems to be fully at rest), to conversations about consolidating our ethnic studies programs due to budget cuts. These issues are not "over there" in Arizona- they are alive in our own communities. It is happening here and now. This isn’t just a question about the status of cultural houses and ethnic studies departments, it is a question about curricula and culture of the academy writ large. Within all disciplines, within the academy-- space is needed to question the deep-seated legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, Western imperialism, and oppression in this country.
I want to suggest that this shift cannot happen in the academy without clearly naming white, Western ideology as being integral into structuring both campus culture and academic curriculum in the United States in institutional and personally-mediated ways. Precious Knowledge is a must-watch documentary that raises many questions for our academic community about what role we will choose in either perpetuating or resisting legacies of social inequality through our educational structures.