Teaching with Contemporary Art

It Ain’t the Heat, It’s the Stupidity

Tom Horne makes his case. Image: azstarnet.com

As promised last week, let’s talk about the plight Mr. Curtis Acosta finds himself in.

As a public school teacher in Arizona, obviously a state with its share of issues to sort through, Mr. Acosta was recently informed that his Latino literature class had been declared illegal. Tom Horne, Arizona’s newly elected attorney general, seems to think that there’s a lot of “propagandizing and brainwashing” going on in the class, especially after John Huppenthal, a former state senator who took over as Arizona’s schools chief, visited the class and saw a picture of Che Guevara hanging on the wall.

But wait, it get’s more interesting. The New York Times reported the following on January 8th

It was Mr. Horne, as the state’s superintendent of public instruction, who wrote a law aimed at challenging Tucson’s ethnic-studies program. The Legislature passed the measure last spring, and Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law in May amid the fierce protests raging over the state’s immigration crackdown.

The article goes on to report…

At a recent news conference, Mr. Horne took pains to describe his attack on Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program as one rooted in good faith. He said he had been studying Spanish for several years and had learned enough to read Mexican history books in Spanish and to give interviews on Univision and Telemundo, two Spanish-language broadcasters.

Asked whether he felt he was being likened to Bull Connor, the Alabama police commissioner who became a symbol of bigotry in the 1960s, Mr. Horne described how he had participated in the March on Washington in 1963 as a young high school graduate. He said of his critics: “They are the ‘Bull Connors.’ They are the ones resegregating.”

Mr. Horne’s battle with Tucson over ethnic studies dates to 2007, when Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, told high school students there in a speech that Republicans hated Latinos. Mr. Horne, a Republican, sent a top aide, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to the school to present a different perspective. He was infuriated when some students turned their backs and raised their fists in the air.

So if I’m understanding this correctly, what we’ve got is a state attorney general in Arizona who is either afraid that a Latino literature class is actually going to inspire future activists or we’re dealing with someone who’s been pissed at a group of students who literally turned their backs on him since 2007 when he had a completely different job…. or both.

And what does this have to do with teaching with contemporary art? There are openings here:

There’s a place for Mr. Acosta to work with his students and perhaps create art that responds to this attack, or create art that educates lawmakers about what is truly being learned in his Latino literature class. Then they can share their work. A lot. Everywhere.

There’s also an opportunity to offer lawmakers in Arizona the chance to regularly take part in Mr. Acosta’s classes (versus a single, cranky visit) and get a real sense of what goes on. Then everyone can talk about the state standards and how they apply fairly across ALL ethnic studies courses. Somewhere along the line everyone can find a middle ground so students aren’t losing the class, Mr. Acosta doesn’t lose his mind, and Mr. Horne doesn’t completely lose face.

One more opening….. How about we send Mr. Acosta a mentor who teaches one of the “acceptable” ethnic studies classes in order to begin a conversation about how the class can be taught within the state standards and still include the meaningful and important literature featured in the course now?

Anyone?

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.

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