Review of Precious Knowledge
Edward M. Olivos
Associate Professor & Department Head
University of Oregon
Department of Education Studies
The film Precious Knowledge documents how students and teachers in the Tucson (Arizona) Unified School District struggle to save their Mexican America/Raza Studies Program (Ethnic Studies program) from Right-wing politicians. The themes presented in the film, however, are much more than valiant efforts by students and teachers to save a high school academic program. To the contrary, the events captured in this film represent the disturbing political climate of Arizona and the political debates which have very little to do with diminishing school budgets or concerns about providing equitable schooling experiences for students of color or underserved communities. Rather, the film captures how the Arizona narrative represents very real ideological and political battles that deal with issues of race, power, politics, and civil rights all within the context of a state and a country experiencing a very rapid and dramatic demographic shift as well as an increasing concentration of wealth and power into the hands of few.
There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the United States is changing dramatically. Not only are we living in one of the most economically stratified times in our nation’s history but we are also witnessing (in actual time), a remarkable shift in the demographic composition of this country. This change is mostly attributed to the often unpredictable and incredible growth of the Latino population during the last 15-20 years. Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are about 50.5 million Latinos living in the United States (or roughly 16 percent of the 308.7 million population). This is a significant increase from the 35.3 million Latinos who lived in the country in 2000. This 15.2 million difference accounts for more than half of U.S. population growth during that same time period.
For some members of our society, this growth in the U.S. Latino population has created a political and ideological battlefield. Attempts to “preserve” a monolingual English and white majority society are now the battle cries and explicit agendas of certain Right-wing (and not so Right-wing) politicians and policymakers and Arizona has become the testing ground for over the top, desperate attempts to contain the inevitable. During the last 3 years or so, we have seen in Arizona the rise of SB 1070 (the “show me your papers” anti-immigrant law) and HB 2281, the bill which was particularly designed to target Raza Studies at the Tuscon Unifed School District, making it illegal to teach courses that are “designed for a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity.” It also links these courses to terrorism by including a clause against classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.”
One of the initial attacks against the Mexican American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District occurred after Tom Horne, Arizona’s attorney general who previously was the state’s schools superintendent, became perturbed that Dolores Huerta of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) told a group of students that “Republicans hate Latinos.” In an attempt to rebut this claim, Horne sent a Republican Latina to the Mexican American studies class at Tucson High in 2007 but the students walked out on the speaker. What Mr. Horne did not (and does not) get is that it is not necessarily the words of Dolores Huerta that is influencing Latino youths’ perceptions about the Republic Party. Rather, it is the actions of the leaders of the Republican Party in Arizona (Jan Brewer, Russell Pearce, John McCain, JD Hayworth, Joe Arpaio, etc) and nationally that leads to no other conclusion than to conclude that the Republican Party indeed does hate Latinos.
As the Latino population and other populations of color continue to grow, our country will continue to see desperate attempts to readjust our country’s institutions which are charged with carrying out the duties of cultural hegemony. We will continue to see Right-wing politicians use these institutions for their advantage as they explore new ways to shift this country away from being a tyranny of the majority to a new U.S. system of racial apartheid.
Precious Knowledge reminds us that the public schools in the United States are very real political and ideological battlegrounds; particularly now since it is in the public school system where one sees the greatest demographic shift and the least accountability. Public schools in the U.S. are now serving primarily students from working class families, students of color, and students from immigrant families. Unfortunately for Latino students, African American students, and Native American students, however, the U.S. public schools have long been “no more than mindless drills [and worksheets] for standardized multiple choice exams that ‘comb’ away anything in the mind that would lead to true learning experiences” (Kharem, 2006, p. 24). Indeed, our public schools have long been used to validate a certain body of knowledge as knowledge which is true, fair, commonsensical, and neutral—that knowledge which represents the interests of white America.
Public schools in the U.S. have never been the friends of marginal communities. They have not been used to empower communities of color and marginalized communities but rather to disempower them. Barrington Moore wrote in 1966, for example, that “in any society, the dominant groups are the ones with the most to hide about the way society works” (p. 522) (as cited in Kharem, 2006, p. 18). Thus, for those in power, it becomes problematic when marginalized groups begin to question the very nature of how things work in our society, how they are being played out, and who is benefiting from them. It therefore becomes the duty of those in power to readjust their arsenal of oppression and to target bicultural communities at younger ages and with more frequency (as we have seen in Arizona) in attempts to further domesticate their minds. Miseducation becomes the explicit purpose of our public education system for “when you control a [person’s] thinking in the interest of the ruling majority, you do not have to worry about [their] actions. You do not have to tell [them] not stand here or to go [there].” Instead, that person will know their “proper place” in society and stay there. “You do not need to send [them] to the back door [or the end of the line; they] will go [there] without being told” (Woodson, 1933, p. xiii, as cited in Kharem, 2006, p. 31).
Paolo Freire (1985) once wrote that “it would be extremely naïve to expect the dominant classes to develop a type of education that would enable subordinate classes to perceive social injustices critically” (as cited in Kharem, 2006, p. 41). Thus, it becomes critically important for the cultural survival of these groups for teachers to become agents of change for our children. And that is what Ethnic Studies is about. It is an opportunity to validate and demonstrate to bicultural children that what they bring to schools is every bit as valid and useful as what their non-minority colleagues bring to the classroom. Their future lies in their unique position in our society to right the wrongs of the past and to promote a truly critical and equitable society. Their greatest challenge however, lies in not assuming the positions of power to become the new tyrant or oppressor but to transform the experiences and possibilities that this new multicultural American brings.
The film Precious Knowledge is a powerful testament of what culturally relevant education can be or what it can look like. It cuts to the heart of what it means to be a teacher as well as an agent of change. Those entering the teaching profession (or currently in the profession) will be touched by the authenticity of its message about caring, courage, struggle, and empowerment.
Kharem, H. (2006). A curriculum of repression: A pedagogy of racial history in the United States. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.