Rethinking Columbus

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, it was a courageous thing to do, but someone was already here... Something you'd know, unless you live in Tucson in 2012

It’s Martin Luther King Day and we should all be thinking about progress we’ve made on King’s dream. Well… this morning I woke up to more of a bit of a sad vision of at least one part of America. My friend Nancy Schimmel sent me a note this morning to let me know that Tucson, Arizona, in order to avoid losing lots of money in state school funding, has ordered certain books to be banned from classrooms in order to be in compliance with the state’s new “ethnic cleansing” rules (my phrase for what they refer to as the elimination of ethnic studies).

According to Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools (at Salon.com), “By ordering teachers to remove ‘Rethinking Columbus,’ the Tucson school district has shown tremendous disrespect for teachers and students.” “This is a book that has sold over 300,000 copies and is used in school districts from Anchorage to Atlanta, and from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. It offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students think about the perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum.”

My company, Reach And Teach, has sold many copies of Rethinking Columbus. The thought that this book, and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” are being banned from Tucson schools boggles my mind.

One of my favorite “boothing” experiences of all time (that’s a new verb for the action of standing in a booth at an event) was when a man walked into our booth, looked around at the types of educational materials we offered, and asked “Do you have anything on Christopher Columbus?” Nancy Schimmel was standing right next to me. She’s a folksinger / songwriter who wrote the following:

1492

Audio

Words and music © 1991 by Nancy Schimmel

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
It was a courageous thing to do
But someone was already here.
Columbus knew the world was round
So he looked for the East while westward bound,
But he didn’t find what he thought he found
And someone was already here.

Chorus:

The Innuit and Cherokee,
The Aztec and Menominee,
The Onadaga and the Cree;
Columbus sailed across the sea,
But someone was already here.

It isn’t like it was empty space,
Caribs met him face to face.
Could anyone discover the place
When someone was already here?

Chorus

So tell me, who discovered what?
He thought he was in a different spot.
Columbus was lost, the Caribs were not;
They were already here.

Chorus

I asked the man to wait a moment while I found the CD with 1492 on it, played it, and watched as he began to grin from ear to ear. Then, when he said he loved it and wanted the album, I said that I could do even better than that and introduced him to the artist! What a blast. Nancy Schimmel, in addition to being an incredible artist in her own right, is also the daughter of Malvina Reynolds (a great folksinger / songwriter who came up with “Little Boxes” to describe the types of houses my husband Derrick and I now live in… ours is the yellow one). Our booth visitor bought the album (which is available now on iTunes) and Rethinking Columbus. Gee, I hope he wasn’t a teacher in Tucson!

So now Nancy joins the club of people who have had their work banned from classrooms somewhere in America. 1492 appears in Rethinking Columbus.

In case you’re not already tuned into what’s been going on in Arizona, on December 31st a new law went into effect banning ethnic studies in public schools. Specifically it:

bans classes that are designed for a particular ethnic group, promote overthrow of the U.S. government, foster resentment toward a particular race or class, or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

I can see the average person thinking “Overthrowing the U.S. government probably shouldn’t be taught in the classroom” (though I would argue with them about it). But rules against promoting ethnic solidarity or using vague and surely unconstitutional language like “fostering resentment?” Come on!

Could teaching about slavery foster resentment against those who held slaves? Yes. Guess we’d better not teach that. Could teaching about banks foreclosing on people’s homes cause resentment against bankers? Yes. Guess we’d better not teach about that. Could teaching the old Jack and Jill nursery rhyme cause resentment against the water company stockholders, when the water company cut off water supplies to Jack and Jill’s house, causing them to have to go up that hill to fetch a pail of water? Yes! And how dare anybody do anything that might promote ethnic solidarity?

We have a book called 25 Math Investigations that Will Astound Teachers and Students which covers the bad deal people get when they “rent to own” things. The purpose of the lesson is to show kids the foolishness of wasting money on incredibly high interest rates. Might learning that lesson also foster resentment for the people who run the rent-to-own shop down the street? Yes! So I guess we’d better throw that book out too.

One of the fortunate results of book-banning, thankfully, is that it often causes even more people to want to read the books that are banned. Another fortunate result of censorship is that people file lawsuits. While a judge has refused to issue an injunction on Arizona’s new ethnic cleansing law, the judge is allowing the suit to move forward. Let’s hope that freedom prevails. Meanwhile, if you happen to pass by an Arizona public school and you have a few moments to sing, how about singing a rousing chorus of 1492? Thanks Nancy!


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