Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Texas Board of Ignorance

I left Texas to educate myself.  At Harvard College, one of my greatest shocks was how little I knew about my heritage and Mexican history.  I was born and lived in Ysleta, less than half a mile from the Zaragoza International Bridge, yet I knew nothing about where I was from.  So I spent four years at Harvard College studying Latin America with visionary teachers like Peter Smith and Terry Karl; I learned Mexican history from John Womack.

I imagined one day life would be different for a young and eager high school student from Ysleta, one who was proud to be an American citizen yet who also wanted to know more about his roots.  But the recent vote on textbook standards from the Texas Board of Education shows that Texas is going backward, not forward.  Close-mindedness is winning.  Ignorance is trumpeted.  Isolation and indoctrination are the new watchwords for those afraid of a changing world.

To recap: last week, the Texas Board of Education, led by a conservative majority, voted to call into question concepts like the separation of church and state and the American Revolution as a secular revolt.  The majority voted to emphasize the political contributions of Phyllis Schlafly, while minimizing Thomas Jefferson, apparently too democratic for their tastes.  In fact, the United States, according to these conservative activists, should not be studied as a ‘democracy’ anymore, but as a ‘constitutionally-based republic.’  Guess who decides what’s in the Constitution?  Previously this conservative majority had attacked the historical contributions of César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.

This is what happens when people hunker down.  When your state is becoming too Mexican-American and African-American, when you feel you are being left behind, when perhaps you see the day when you will not be the majority anymore, then you retrench and attempt to rewrite history.  But what happened to thinking?  What happened to understanding that many Latinos, including my mother, hold deeply conservative values, yet simply do not want to be mistreated or disrespected?  What happened to studying the fact that the Constitution counted a slave as two-thirds of a person, while also being a unique founding document that created checks and balances between branches of government to control their powers?  Why can’t we study the failures of our history as well as our triumphs, and still appreciate that we live in a great country?

One conservative board member, in an interview, said the majority’s vote was “the return of American exceptionalism.”  But sadly, the conservative vote of the Texas Board of Education shows exactly the opposite.  The United States was an exceptional, historically unique country because it was pluralistic, because you had freedom of speech and freedom from a state-imposed religion, because unlike hierarchical Europe you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve regardless of class, religion, and then later, race.  We have always been a work-in-progress; that's the root of our greatness.

The United States remains exceptional as long as we correct our mistakes, as long as we keep confronting our problems head on.  That’s what a democracy does, at least when it functions well.  The problems get aired out, confronted, and eventually fixed more or less.

But when you trumpet some weirdly nostalgic ‘America’ that never existed, without the messy conflicts, without the democratic debates, without the will of the people manifesting itself through blood and protest, what you are holding high is an ‘American absolutism.’  You are saying, in effect, stop thinking.  Stop including the newcomers, like Latinos, and stop turning them into Americans.  You are saying stop the potpourri of religions now in America; let’s all be Christians.

You are saying, without saying it, that we are not confident anymore.  We are not pluralistic anymore.  We must close shop.  We must bar the doors.  This scary new world is too much.  Let’s teach our children to hide.

The only saving grace is that I learned about the vote of the Texas Board of Education in El Paso.  At least El Paso is barely part of Texas.  I don’t have to explain myself in El Paso, and I don’t have to endure suspicious stares or seemingly polite comments about my accent in Ysleta.  As Texas becomes more like El Paso, maybe one of these days, before I die, I will feel at home in the rest of Texas too.