As ethnic studies defenders in Arizona prepare for the latest showdown in the state’s controversial ban this week, a blockbuster new film chronicling the unknown back story behind the crisis is gearing up for national release.
Rarely has a film been so timely and downright revelatory.
Casting aside the inflammatory rhetoric and national headlines of the anti-ethnic-studies instigators, Precious Knowledge provides a clear-eyed portrait of students, teachers and their community struggling to deal with the nation’s most unnerving campus witch hunt in recent memory. Tracing the political roots of the legislative ban — and the program’s own mandate and success to alleviate the long-time achievement gaps among Latino students — Precious Knowledge’s riveting pacing and compelling portraits will astonish, infuriate and inspire viewers.
In truth, Precious Knowledge is the type of unique and powerful film that could ultimately shift public perception and policy on one of the most misunderstood education programs in the country.
In a balanced but unabashedly passionate film directed by Ari Luis Palos and produced by Eren Isabel McGinnis, Precious Knowledge serves as a remarkable and seemingly more honest counter argument to last year’s widely acclaimed Waiting for Superman, the documentary film on charter schools and the failure of public instruction.
The stakes in Precious Knowledge are somehow even higher: We meet students who emerge as their own advocates to not only defend their right to a decent education, but their very existence and cultural heritage.
The film celebrated its premiere with a sold-out crowd in Tucson in March.
With over 50 percent of Latino students failing to graduate nationwide, Precious Knowledge walks the viewers through the relentless battle over several years by headstrong anti-ethnic-studies extremists in Arizona to outlaw Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. Based in six Tucson high schools, the MAS program graduates 93 percent of its college-bound students.
In the process, Precious Knowledge reveals the ideological and political fervor afoot in Arizona and underscoring the anti-ethnic-studies ban and anti-immigrant measures, which claims the MAS courses promote the “overthrow of the government” and ethnic resentment. At the same time, the film places the founding of the ethnic studies program in the larger historical context of Tucson’s long-time struggles by the Mexican-American community for better education and an end to discriminatory policies. A sign from the famed 1969 walkouts, led by Chicano activists, resonates today: “We dare to care about education.”
No one is more attuned to the political hijinks and hypocrisy than the young students featured in the film — Pricila Rodriguez, Crystal Terriquez, Gilbert Esparza and Mariah Harvey, among others — who transform over the course of the film from shy, uncertain kids “in the back of the room” to become engaged and academically-grounded defenders of their program and confident public speakers and organizers in their communities, and ultimately at the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix.
For Gilbert, who has grown up in a neighborhood where so many of his peers are “locked up or dead,” the MAS program galvanizes his one-time dismal studies. For the first time in his life, he says, “I would go home and read articles over and over again… and started getting A’s and B’s.”
For Pricila, whose father has been incarcerated as an undocumented worker, the MAS course rescues her from a freshman drop-out status and sets her onto a college-bound future.
Along with the brilliant Jose Gonzales, Curtis Acosta is featured as one of the embattled literature teachers in the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School. Engaging and often comic, Acosta appears at first like a Latino version of Robin Williams’ portrait of the inspiring poetry teacher in the film classic, Dead Poets Society. By the end of the movie, Acosta’s ability to handle the unthinkably stressful task of teaching, defending his class to extremist legislators and the media, and the subsequent tidal wave of hate mail and public hounding, demonstrates his own resiliency and transformation as an extraordinary catalyst for change. His role ranks as one of the best documentary film portraits of a successful public educator ever made.
With unprecedented access to the classroom, Precious Knowledge allows the viewer to understand the role of culturally-relevant material and critical pedagogy that challenge the student to read the word, and the world. “The freedom to ask questions,” says Acosta, “that are the most pertinent in the way they view the world.” But in the capable hands of director Palos, the film doesn’t permit the teachers to dodge any element of perceived radicalism, such as the teaching of famed Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but places the principles of a culturally-relevant curriculum and its Chicano viewpoint into context. Freire’s widely used theories of critical pedagogy have been translated into numerous languages, and are taught at universities around the United States; he received 16 honorary doctorates, including a 1996 honor from the University of Nebraska.
Far from any radical agenda, as Tucson Unified School District administrator Dr. Augustine Romero notes, the human portraits unfolding in Precious Knowledge deftly show the MAS program’s emphasis on the “idea of love, and not only love for myself, but love for those around me.”
As one of the most convincing parts of the film, Precious Knowledge also provides plenty of time for anti-Ethnic Studies officials, including former Arizona superintendent of education Tom Horne and and current state superintendent John Huppenthal.
A Canadian immigrant who has often invoked his own Jewish cultural legacy as vital to guiding his views on education and historical instruction, Horne tells the filmmakers that the cultural-relevancy-focused curriculum of the Mexican American Studies Program is based on a “primitive part that is tribal.”
Whether or not one agrees with Horne, who has openly lied in the past about his history of bankruptcy and has the unique distinction of being banned forever from the Securities and Exchanges Commission after he “willfully aided and abetted” securities law violations, no viewer will doubt that Horne’s spiraling obsession with the Ethnic Studies Program almost borders on the maniacal and risks statements that are outright falsehoods.
Two examples, among many, leap out at the viewer: While first denying at a Senate hearing he has ever been invited to a MAS classroom, Horne backsteps when challenged by a legislator and then admits that he has been invited. Horne’s accusation that the Mexican American Studies Program is “dividing students by ethnicity” and preaching ethnic resentment is soundly rebuked by the sheer number of non-Latino students who take the classes, testify at various hearings and protest and eloquently describe to visiting lawmakers and TV reporters about their experience. The blond-haired MAS student Erin Cain-Hodge calmly tells one news report at a Tucson protest on the need to “make a stand” against “this racist bill.” At a charged Senate hearing, African-American student Mariah Harvey poignantly explains how the classes engender a sense of “understanding and forgiveness.”
After being presented with evidence of the MAS program’s dramatically increased graduation rates, Horne responds that the program is “not doing any thing right,” and “should be abolished.” When students exercise their First Amendment rights to protest outside a Horne press conference, he quickly refers to the “rudeness they teach to their kids.”
Throughout the documentary, Huppenthal and Horne exhibit a hyper-aversion to anyone addressing past social injustices in the United States, especially among the founding fathers. And this is a fundamental difference so profoundly explored in the film: Instead of viewing historic campaigns for civil rights, women’s suffrage or child labor laws, for example, as inspiring lessons of change and transformation in the American democratic process, Huppenthal and Horne effectively demand that a censored presentation of American history be taught to Arizona children that casts modern society as colorblind and flawless — and our founders as infallible.
Perhaps this makes sense for Huppenthal, who was educated at a private parochial Catholic school, and refused to send his children to regular public schools, and once lectured university scholars that his own educational principles for children were based on corporate management schemes of the Fortune 500.
During the same period as the making of the film, Huppenthal actually served as a featured speaker with the notorious state senate president Russell Pearce at an extremist Tea Party rally in 2009, but never repudiated widespread charges of his own President Obama as a “Nazi.” Nor has Huppenthal ever denounced Pearce and his fellow radical Arizona state legislators’ aborted efforts to “nullify” federal laws. In the film, Huppenthal, who ran on a 2010 campaign to “stop la raza,” takes to the Senate floor and declares “parts of our neighborhoods” have been “nuclear-bombed by the effects of illegal immigration.”
After visiting Acosta’s class at Tucson High School in the film, Huppenthal reports back to a Senate hearing that an ethnic studies administrator has “trashed Benjamin Franklin.” In truth, the adviser had only repeated Franklin’s very famous “Observation” in 1753 of his concern of too many “tawny” people. (One little footnote: Franklin also disparaged Huppenthal’s German ancestors as “the most ignorant stupid sort” who were unable to learn English in that same document.)
Such duplicity never seems to bother Horne or Huppenthal, who soon ramp up the power-keg rhetoric of their obsessive campaign with the help of the infamous Russell Pearce, who has openly associated with neo-Nazi activists. After hearing student Mariah Harvey’s compelling description of a program that “doesn’t teach us to be anti-American,” but “embrace America, all of it, flaws and all,” Pearce simply charges the program preaches “hate speech, sedition, anti-Americanism.”
In the gripping build up to the final passage of the HB221 law in 2010 that bans Ethnic Studies, and remains in litigation, Precious Knowledge follows the emerging students leaders and teachers in their unrelenting battle to keep their acclaimed program alive.
In the end, Acosta tells community members at a rally, “we have taught you to love.”
As the inspiring MAS students walk across the graduation stage in their caps and gowns, no one will have any doubts these extraordinary young people have just begun their journey to change their communities and Arizona — and the nation.