The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the month “March, 2012”

The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.

But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This can’t be your work,” he says. “I mean really! You lack the background, the breeding, and the life experience to write anything even approaching this level of talent and creativity. This is the work of another author.”

What would you do? Well, you might reasonably challenge this professor to conclusively prove his accusation. But he refuses, and instead has the temerity to put the burden of proof upon you, saying: “Enough of your lies! Prove to me that you aren’t a plagiarist.” Your reputation at stake, you scramble to retrieve notes that you’ve handwritten, or stored away on your computer or USB key, anything to get this professor off of your back and clear your tarnished name. But you’d better do it quickly, because in the meantime your former instructor is drawing up a lengthy list of alternative candidates as the work’s true author. You are guilty until proven innocent, slimed by association, and discredited by crass and baseless innuendo.

It’d be tough, but chances are that you could set the record straight by finding the necessary documentation. But what if a full decade passed before that professor called you in? Or two? Or even three? You might have to work a little harder. The evidence might be tougher to track down. But in the end, you’d probably still be able to advocate on your own behalf, and clear your name while looking your own accuser in the face.

But now imagine that the unfounded smear comes not during your lifetime, but almost two centuries after your death. There wouldn’t be a whole lot that you could do. The defense of your integrity would now be left in the hands of historians and educators, and the public’s perception of the truth might forever be clouded by a thick and impenetrable fog.

Welcome to the world of the authorship “debate.” William Shakespeare’s work and influence is ubiquitous. His plays dominate high school and college reading lists. There are over 115 Shakespeare companies and festivals in the United States alone. It’s all but impossible to count the number of film and television adaptations of his works, but they certainly number in the hundreds. Such an overwhelming cultural presence makes it hard to remember that four centuries ago, someone – a real live human being – had to sit down, pull out a quill, and pump those suckers out. Perhaps I’m speculating, but I’d be willing to bet that writing at least 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two erotic poems must have been one hell of a chore. I think we can all agree that it involved painstaking hours of intense and exhausting work. And while scores of doubters edge their way into the market place of ideas, there isn’t one shred of reliable evidence to cast any reasonable doubt upon the author’s true identity: William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon.

You want me to prove it? Sure you do, and I’m happy to oblige. Declarative assertions demand nothing less. Those of us who celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday mark it on April 23, so the time seems awfully ripe. But before we get down to the case at hand, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the very backwardness of this scenario: any reasonable standard of jurisprudence establishes that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But thanks to the legion of Doubting Thomases, all but demanding that Shakespeare rise from the grave and present an ink stained stigmata as proof of authentic authorship, the burden appears to have shifted to the Bard’s defenders. Thus, it falls to us to prove a case that was never raised once during the author’s lifetime.

William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 (we actually don’t know his date of birth), and died on April 23, 1616 in the Warkwickshire town of Stratford. He was an actor and shareholder of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) theatre company, which erected the Globe Theatre in 1599.  These facts are not in dispute. The “controversy” is over who actually wrote the plays, sonnets, and other poems that bear William Shakespeare’s name. But as earlier mentioned, no such controversy existed when Shakespeare himself was alive. Indeed, in 1964 William M. Murphy cited at least 23 historical documents establishing the man from Stratford as the author of virtually all the works in question, including diary entries and legal papers.  (This list does not even include the title pages of plays and poems crediting William Shakespeare as their author).

One of the most impressive of these is Frances Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, first published in 1598. Meres, a minister educated at Cambridge, was an avid enthusiast of the London theatre scene. He was especially taken with Shakespeare’s work, as evidenced in the following passage:

“…so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.

Palladis is one of several primary historical documents that acknowledges Shakespeare as the author of the works in question. (It’s also been an indispensable tool for dating his plays.) No one has brought this evidence together more concisely and authoritatively than James Shapiro in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro shows us a Shakespeare deeply rooted in a specific place and time. We see a well-known man of considerable accomplishment and reputation. More than seventy editions of his works appeared in print during his lifetime. Moreover, as we have seen above, Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about him, and they had a lot to say. Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit, written in 1592, lampooned Shakespeare’s ‘upstart crow’ pretentions. The author, Robert Greene, was shocked that a lowly actor might presume to be a man of letters, mocking his fellow poet’s “Tygers heart wrapped in a Players hyde…” Other writers appear to have been more positively disposed to Shakespeare’s work. Shapiro cites the Parnassus trilogies, performed at King’s College at the turn of the 17th century, in which one character exclaims: “We shall hear nothing but pure Shakespeare!”

Those of us curious about Shakespeare’s relationship with other writers would do well in turning to Ben Jonson. Shakespeare acted in more than one of Jonson’s plays, and appears to have cast quite the shadow over the younger writer’s career and psyche. Jonson’s reviews of Shakespeare’s works are decidedly mixed. He effusively praised Shakespeare in the First Folio, which was published in 1623. But Jonson could also turn on Shakespeare, as when he took the older poet to task for his geographical inaccuracies in A Winter’s Tale. (How can you have a shipwreck in Bohemia?)

But Jonson’s admiration for Shakespeare appears to have won out, as shown in this excerpt from his private notes, which were published after his death in 1641 as Timber, or Discoveries; Made Upon Men and Matter:

I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side of Idolotry) as much as any. He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature; had an excellent fancy; brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that it was sometimes necessary that he should be stopped.

William Shakespeare of Stratford died in 1616 a wealthy, famous man. As an actor and shareholder in an incredibly successful theatre company, he’d experienced innumerable business and artistic interactions during the fifty-two years of his life. By his peers and contemporaries, he was both loved and hated. If all of the works attributed to him were actually written by another person, doesn’t it seem like somebody would have figured it out and said something? An Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre company was an extremely competitive business venture; the same was true with publishing. Proving, or even asserting, that a major shareholder and actor in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t actually write Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet would have been a major (and potentially profitable) coup.

Or let’s just say that this was a conspiracy astoundingly executed for a period of roughly 27 years. This means that virtually every literary, theatrical, and even major political figure in England was either a participant or a dupe. But what about after Shakespeare’s death? Was the awful truth finally revealed? After all, entire books questioning The Warren Commission’s findings on the JFK assassination were being published as early as 1964. If Shakespeare had been the front man for an authorial cover up and conspiracy, somebody would have surely let it slip.

But no one did. For over a century after his death, Shakespeare was universally acknowledged as the author of all the works that bore his name. So where did the controversy start? If the case for Shakespeare is so obvious, why would anyone ever believe otherwise?

To find the answer, we have to go back towards the end of the 18th century, when historians became extremely curious about the facts of Shakespeare’s life. But the discovery of historical documents can be a slow and tedious business; perhaps the lack of ready and immediate evidence seemed suspicious. In the meantime, William Shakespeare was becoming the victim of his own posthumous success. While many of his plays enjoyed great commercial and critical acclaim during his lifetime, his literary reputation ascended dramatically during the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries. Indeed, this rise caused George Bernard Shaw to coin the term ‘Bardolatry’ in derisive reference to the growing deification of Shakespeare and his poetic genius.

But the emerging biographical information discovered proved to be somewhat less than pleasing. It turns out that Shakespeare was not an abstract, idealized personification of genius. The man had many faults. The creator of Shylock was a moneylender himself: in 1609, when his neighbor John Addenbrooke defaulted on a six-pound loan, Shakespeare had the man arrested. Like Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare was self-educated (which I would consider a virtue, not a vice); the man from Stratford did not attend a university. His first child was apparently conceived out of wedlock. Shakespeare wasn’t much of a family man, living most of his life in London with only occasional visits to his wife and three children back in Stratford. He was probably not even present for his eleven year-old son Hamnet’s burial.

These facts didn’t sit well with some of the 19th century’s more prominent men and women of letters. Rather than abandon their preconceived notion of Shakespeare’s character, they chose instead to abandon Shakespeare:

 “I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.” Henry James

“[Shakespeare] carries the court influence with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes… He looks into Arden and Eastcheap from the court standpoint, not from these into the court.” Delia Bacon

 “(Shakespeare) was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The anonymous author of the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s FAQ page puts the case forward in no uncertain terms:

“Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world’s greatest author.”

And there you have it. William Shakespeare was incapable of such genius. He was too ordinary. Too un-aristocratic. Too common. Too actorly. Too….just not exactly what I want him to be to have written the greatest plays on earth. If I can’t understand it, then I guess it just isn’t true.

The argument is not simply ridiculous. It is downright dangerous in its pernicious elitism. Worse yet, it’s an insult to the wondrous capacities of the human imagination. The mystery and miracle of genius is its sheer inexplicability. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some people come into the world with astounding abilities and talents that the rest of us don’t have. If aristocratic background and formal education were the only prerequisites for sensational writing, we’d be reading masterpieces penned by the likes Prince Charles and George W. Bush.

But let’s put aside the obscenely classist premise of the “anti-Stratfordian” arguments. I am willing to assume for five uninterrupted minutes that the actor manager (how did Emerson know he was “jovial”?) did not write the works for which all of his contemporaries gave him credit. The accusation begs the question: who really wrote all of Shakespeare’s works?

Brace yourself, people, because answer is shocking. Ladies and Gentlemen, the real author behind the fraud of William Shakespeare is….Francis Bacon!

No, wait, I’m sorry, I got that wrong. It’s actually Christopher Marlowe. It’s not? Ok, wait, hang on, I got it, I got it, it’s, um…it’s Queen Elizabeth! Oh, Jesus (not him either), I’m sorry! It couldn’t be her. Or him. Ok, wait, I’ve got it now: the real author behind the Shakespeare conspiracy is…Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Go ahead. Pick one. You don’t like them? Don’t worry, there are lots more; keep looking, and eventually you’ll find a candidate who suits you. As long as you’re convinced that Shakespeare wasn’t capable of writing his plays and poems, you can twist any fact to fit your foregone conclusion. And you will have to twist a lot of facts. Of the candidates I just mentioned, only Francis Bacon had the good taste to die after Shakespeare passed away. The rest of them met their respective ends before Shakespeare had written some of his most important work.

The current favorite is Oxford, the misunderstood hero of Anonymous: that Roland Emerich film that everyone talked about and nobody saw. As with every candidate, there are numerous holes in the Oxford candidacy. For now, let’s just look at two. The most obvious is de Vere’s inconvenient date of death: June 24, 1604. Even the most conservative dating of Shakespeare’s works gives us eleven plays composed between 1605 and 1613 (including King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest).*

The second piece of evidence is more circumstantial, but to my mind, no less compelling. Edward de Vere was an avid patron of the arts. In fact, the 17th Earl of Oxford sponsored his own theatrical troupe, which existed from 1580 to 1602.   If Oxford really was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, why wasn’t he penning his best work for his own company, instead of its rival, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? For it was Shakespeare’s troupe, and not Oxford’s, who staged Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and all the other works of the cannon. Doesn’t it seem odd that the anonymous earl didn’t use one of his own actors as a front man? Wouldn’t a more probable authorship candidate be someone who was a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? Perhaps an actor, and a shareholder in the company? Isn’t there a slight possibility that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays is William Shakespeare himself?

Examine the biographies of the other would be Shakespeares; as with Oxford, their cases fall apart.  And when you get right down to it, the sheer number of candidates (some count at least 70) tells us everything we need to know. The scramble for anyone but Shakespeare reveals the flimsy reasoning of his desperate nay-sayers. If I’ve already decided that Barack Obama simply couldn’t be an American citizen, then even a certified copy of his birth certificate will fail to change my mind.

It would be comical if nobody took it seriously. But last fall, a major Hollywood film touted this fiction as fact; once again, the authorship debate became part of our cultural conversation. At the time I was directing an 8th grade production of Hamlet, and for a while, I couldn’t get through a rehearsal without the issue coming up. Parents at my son’s soccer games began to ask me: “So! What do you think about the idea that Shakespeare didn’t really write all of those plays?”

I’m always happy to answer a student’s question. And when it comes to my son, I’ll always take one for the team. But my patience finally snapped several months ago during a chat with a friend, an educated man who is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps I wore him down with the passion of my argument. Whatever the reason, I knew he was ready for our conversation to be over when I heard these words: “Well, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter who wrote these plays. They’re great. They’re beautiful. Why don’t we just leave it at that?”

I have heard this argument before, and I’ll be honest: I find it more troubling than the most improbable anti-Stratfordian dogma. Why? Because in fact, it does really matter. It matters because denying an author credit for his or her work is a slap in the face to basic fairness. It matters because what biographical information we have about Shakespeare does help us understand the world of his imaginary creations. And it matters because we know the author’s identity, and to pretend otherwise is simply craven and irresponsible. It isn’t hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote those plays. What’s hard to believe is that anyone wrote them at all. To inhabit the world of Shakespeare – be it as a teacher, student, actor, designer, director, or audience member – is to find yourself in the throws of a life long love affair. Those eighth graders that I mentioned earlier did astonishing work with Hamlet, giving me and a sold out crowd a wild and beautiful night at the theatre. As is so often the case with young actors, these kids tapped into the play’s crazy, angsty, and anarchic spirit with more zest and honesty than I’ve seen in most highly trained professionals.

Those kids in the Hamlet cast are my students. Were I to catch any of them plagiarizing, there would be serious consequences. So I would need to be sure before making the accusation. I couldn’t just draw up a list of alternative authors. I couldn’t just say to my student: “You didn’t write this essay. Nothing about you rings true: your character, your background, your education, your family, your friends.” No. I’d have to lay my prejudices aside and look at the facts. We all have our hunches. And conspiracy theories are always tempting. But the search for the truth demands a rational and coherent respect for the cold, hard facts.

I owe that to my students. And if you’re a teacher, you owe the same to yours, whether you’re looking at their work, or Shakespeare’s. For most of my career I sidestepped the issue with, “Well, some people believe that he wrote the plays, and some believe he didn’t.” I now realize that’s just as much of a cop out as saying Columbus might have proven the world was round, or that climate change might not be man made. There are times when impartiality imparts nothing, and some arguments are more equal than others.

400 years ago, the world was given a body of theatrical and poetic masterpieces that continue to delight, horrify, astound, and amaze. William Shakespeare was universally acknowledged by his friends, enemies, colleagues, and acquaintances as the author of these astonishing wonderworks. Since every effort to prove otherwise has failed, it’s time to stop asking who wrote them. Let’s get back to the business of asking the questions that will help us understand them.

David Berkson

3/26/12

* The dating of Shakespeare’s plays is a favorite line of attack amongst his doubters. The reasoning goes that because we can not always affix a precise date to his plays without absolute certainty, the entire process is no more than professorial conjecture. That’s sort of like saying that meteorology is not a science because the weatherman is sometimes wrong. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing.

For instance, many of Shakespeare’s later plays such as The Tempest call for special lighting effects that weren’t present in the earlier plays. Scholars attribute this to the fact that in 1608 Shakespeare’s company took possession of the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor venue with different production capabilities than the outdoor Globe Theatre. Oxford died in 1604. While this in and of itself does not prove Shakespeare’s authorship, the burden still rests on the prosecution. Their best line of attack is that deVere wrote a number of the plays before his death that happened to be perfectly suited to a venue that Shakespeare’s company coincidentally acquired four years later. I guess that one of Oxford’s agents must have secretly fed these plays to Shakespeare’s company. Feel free to believe this line of reasoning if you like, but be sure to ignore the mountain of evidence supporting Shakespeare, especially the fact that no one during his lifetime challenged the universal acceptance his authorship.

Post Script

Well, if I wanted to end the debate on who wrote Shakespeare, I didn’t do a very good job, did I? For some reason, I just didn’t think asserting that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet would be very controversial. But as the responses to this piece clearly demonstrate, I was wrong.

And it’s been a fun debate, albeit one that I’d love to bring to swift conclusion. But since that probably won’t happen, and especially since my colleagues, along with my students and their families, are starting to read this, I wanted to make a few things clear:

  • I would never shut a student or anyone else down who disagreed with me on this or any other matter. Respectful debate is good, and I hope that the one we’ve had in the comments section of this blog has modeled that mantra. When I felt that my rhetoric bordered on disrespect, I tried to check in with the respondents to make sure that they felt welcome to come back and share their views, even (and I guess especially) when they disagreed with me.
  • I’ve learned a lot from the below discussion. “Edward” in particular gave me a run for my money. I had to do some extra research and fact checking when attempting to disprove some of his arguments. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned that two people can look at the same piece of evidence, and come up with completely different conclusions regarding what that evidence means.
  • I’ll speak only for myself on this one: the only reason why I sidestepped this issue in the past was because I felt as if I didn’t have enough information. Now, being better educated, I speak with a clearer voice. I believe that an informed educator with a strong view, and who acknowledges that view while inviting debate, does his or her students a tremendous service. To be sure, it’s not the only way to teach. But it can certainly lead to some interesting discussions. I’m looking forward to many more.

David Berkson

4/8/12

 

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Bring Rush Limbaugh Down: Protect His Right to Free Speech

I don’t personally know Rush Limbaugh, and that suits me fine. I am quite familiar with his words and actions, and I find them both contemptible. Look at the freakshow shoutfest that passes for civic debate in our Autumning Empire. You’ll find his fingerprints everywhere. To understand what this man has done to public discourse in our country, imagine what a nuclear waste site would look like under the stewardship of an insolent and dangerously unbalanced toddler.

He is not, as Rick Santorum and others have suggested, merely “an entertainer”. Virtually every piece of progressive legislation blocked in this country since the early ’90s can lay at least a little bit of blame at Rush Limbaugh’s chubby feet. When Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover of congress in 1994, the freshman class rewarded the radio personality by making him an honorary member of their caucus. In the past twenty years, America has had at least two excellent chances at getting reasonable and affordable healthcare, only to be stymied (or at least seriously thwarted) by the shock jock’s immeasurable summoning power of the far right. Rush Limbaugh is a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe, and a liar. He is America’s mascot of shame, and in the words of Eugene Ionesco, “a perfect example of what not to do.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we never had to hear that blustering voice again? If somehow, he could just disappear, or forever be silenced? The day we never hear his hateful lies will be a great one for this country, and I would like nothing better than to be the one to hasten its arrival by silencing Limbaugh once and for all – by legal means if necessary.

But I can’t. And I shouldn’t. It’s not my right. It’s not my right to silence him or anyone else who disagrees with me or my opinions.  Limbaugh, like every other person living in this country, is guaranteed the right of free speech and press under the First Amendment to the United States constitution.

Now in 2006, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum conducted a study which revealed that most Americans know more about The Simpsons than our First Amendment rights. So I guess I wasn’t surprised when I found out that there is an effort to get the FCC to take Limbaugh off the air. But I was shocked when I learned who is calling for it: actress and activist Jane Fonda, founder of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinem, and former editor of Ms. and Sisterhood is Powerful, Robin Morgan.

These are educated women. More than that, they are model citizens who have performed invaluable political and public services for our country by advancing the causes of equality for women and reproductive rights. And believe me, if my mother knew I was publicly disagreeing with Fonda and Steinem, she would rise up from the grave and eat my brains for breakfast. In all my life, I never met a more committed feminist than Mom, whose life changed in the early seventies upon hearing Betty Friedan speak in Iowa City, Iowa. Empowered with a new understanding of “the problem that has no name,” my mother went back to grad school and got her PhD in English. Mom was chapter president of the National Organization for Women in Bloomington, Illinois, where she fought tirelessly for many political causes, including the Equal Rights Amendment. Her work as a teacher at Lewis and Clark College (chronicled, with the efforts of many other educators, in Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault’s The Feminist Classroom)imaginatively and courageously critiqued the dominant gender paradigm from almost every possible angle. We all have our role models; Steinem and Fonda were Mom’s. So my stance in the current debate puts me in a rather awkward position. When questioning the wisdom of my mother’s idols, I do so with great trepidation, and maybe even a little bit of fear.

But Mom also taught me to revere the First Amendment. When I entered an oratory contest in middle school, she encouraged me to use that opportunity to defend the right of speech, even of American Nazis who had planned on marching in the largely Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. I was understandably reluctant to go that far. But Mom helped me understand there is a difference between defending a person’s views, and that individual’s right to express those views, even when they are unimaginably contemptible, and are put forward by enemies of democracy and justice.

Which brings us back to Limbaugh. His latest rhetorical outrage is only one of many over a long career of shame and infamy. In addition to calling Sandra Fluke, a law student advocating for health insurance coverage for birth control, a “slut” and a “prostitute,” here are some truly despicable things the blubbering right wing demagogue has written and said:

Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.

[Regarding the video taped humiliation of Abu Gharaib prisoners by American soldiers in 2004]: “It’s sort of like hazing, a fraternity prank. Sort of like that kind of fun.

 If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, then we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is: we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

To call Rush Limbaugh an “entertainer” is to liken him somehow to the guy who spins plates at children’s parties.  Limbaugh’s own defense that he uses “absurdity to highlight absurdity” is equally disingenuous. What, is he now America’s reactionary Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett? (Sorry, Rush, I think that David Mamet’s already competing for that title). The ’94 freshman caucus had it right: Limbaugh is a shaper of our national conversation, and to pretend that he isn’t dangerous is, well…dangerous.

But legislating him off the air would be even more dangerous, and that’s essentially what Fonda, Steinem, and Morgan are advocating in their call for an FCC ban.  To be fair, the three co-founders of the Women’s Media Center write in their CNN column that Limbaugh “is indeed constitutionally entitled to his opinions, but he is not constitutionally entitled to the people’s airways.” But that isn’t quite right: the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee freedom of opinions. It guarantees the freedom of speech to express those opinions. The Federal Communications Commission is an arm of the United States federal government. Using it to shut down Limbaugh’s program would be a textbook infringement of constitutional law.

Besides, if these three want to use the FCC to clean up the airwaves, why not work to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which the Reagan administration repealed in 1987?  Prior to that, broadcasters had been required to present multiple perspectives when granting access to the airwaves.  The absence of this doctrine is what has allowed Limbaugh and his ilk to dominate AM radio and the tenor of our national debate. The remedy to Limbaugh is more free speech, not less.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s for a moment say that Fonda, Steinem, and Morgan are correct, and that a Limbaugh overthrow is morally and constitutionally defensible. It is still bad, bad politics, and all three of these activists should know better. To have feminists ask the federal government to take Rush off the air risks enabling every delusion of white male victimhood that Limbaugh cynically peddles on his program. Why make him a martyr of a so-called “feminazi” attack? The playbook of the right sounds something like this: “Look at the liberal elite of this country, trying to make the government bigger, and silence ordinary working Joes like us!”  Advocating for an FCC shutdown of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program is one dangerous step towards making that fantasy of victimhood just a little more real.

Besides, the law of karma is finally playing out: over 100 advertisers have abandoned his program, and even House Speaker John Boehner has taken pains to distance himself from the “entertainer”‘s remarks about Fluke. Polls show a drop in Rush’s favorability among even Republican voters, which suggests that Americans are wising up to the possibility that Limbaugh actually means what he says. Fonda, Steinem, and Morgan have forgotten one of the most important principles of chess: the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. Don’t make her capture a lesser piece, only to have her be sacrificed in the very next move.

Infringements on the First Amendment are like boomerangs: they will always come back, and when they do, you’d better prepared to catch or duck. Seriously, are you ready to have the FCC take down Rachel Maddow? Stephen Colbert? Jon Stewart? Should a Romney or a Santorum win the Oval Office, voices of dissent will be crucial for the left, and I think we’d all hate to hear, “Well you tried it with Limbaugh! Now…it’s our turn!”

U-uh. No way. Nobody’s ever accused me of being rah rah rah America, but I love our First Amendment, and I’m proud to live in a country where it’s upheld (at least most of the time) with even a modicum of fairness.  Rush Limbaugh deserves to go down, but not at the expense of our constitution.  Mom always told me that the means don’t justify the ends; the means are the ends. And I hope, if she were still here, that she’d send that message loudly and clearly to her sisters in arms.

Then again, she might turn it back on me. And I’d be ok with that, too. We’d just have ourselves another family political debate. Aaah, memories. Those debates could get pretty gnarly sometimes. But no matter how heated they got, we all understood that we were free to have them in private, and in public, under the full protection of the First Amendment. And that’s something that is always worth fighting for.

David Berkson

3/20/12

Un-Discovering Columbus: An Interview with Bill Bigelow on Censorship, Tucson, and Democracy in Education

“Let’s see, how to sum up Mr. Bigelow? Favorite teacher ever.” So says Andrew Rohn, co-creator of the off-Broadway musical Walmartopia. Andrew and I were both students at Jefferson High School in Portland, OR, where Bill Bigelow taught from 1979 to 1994. Allen Mueller, another Bigelow student, is now an administrator for Atlanta Public Schools. Allen traces a direct line from Bill’s classroom to his own work, saying it “…is unquestionably influenced daily by things I learned from Bill thirty years ago.” Angie Morrill, a Visiting Instructor of Native American Studies at Oregon State University, wanted to know when I’d be done interviewing Bill because, “I would love to tell (my students) about a teacher who I was lucky enough to know (and) had such a material impact on so many lives.” Andrew speaks for so many of us when he says that Bill “challenged my assumptions and pressed me to think more deeply about the world.”

My sophomore year in high school was a nightmare. I managed to flunk just about every course I took. But not Bill’s. There was no way I was going to miss my Global Studies class. It was way too much fun, and so incredibly exciting. What would we be rethinking today? Columbus? The Vietnam War? Central America, Lincoln, Reagan, slavery, colonialism, capitalism, art, Christianity, even Dr. Seuss – nothing was off limits. Apparent abstractions such as history and democracy were transformed into living, breathing realities in which I myself became an active and eager participant. Best of all, Bill infused me, and so many other young people, with a profound sense of hope. Hope that we ourselves might be the agents of social change to a new and better world. Arne Johnson, co-director of the documentary Girls Rock, says it best: “Bill was a signpost in high school, you could choose which direction you were going to go, but you couldn’t miss him.”

Bill Bigelow officially retired from the classroom five years ago, but he’s still pretty tough to miss. If you’re a teacher with any commitment to social justice, chances are you’ve benefitted from some of his work. Bill is the curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the online Zinn Education Project, both invaluable resources for progressive educators. He is a prolific writer and editor, whose books include The Line Between Us, A People’s History for the Classroom, and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.

Does that last title sound familiar? It should. Rethinking Columbus is an amazing collection of lesson plans, critical articles, and Native American poems that has served as an invaluable classroom resource for the past twenty years. It is also one of seven books that have been banned by the Tucson Unified School District. In January of this year, district officials came into Tucson’s high schools, confiscated the offending books, put them in boxes, and carted them away. These books were taken while classes were in session, so that the teachers and students wouldn’t miss the point. What’s even more terrifying is that their actions were in compliance with an Arizona state law. HB 2281 has terminated Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, a virtually one of a kind social studies and humanities high school program that seeks to close the “achievement gap” by encouraging Tucson students (of whom at least 60% are Latino) to look at American history critically in regards to race, gender, and ethnicity. But Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal will have none of it, and threatened to withdraw 14 million dollars in state funding to the Tucson Unified School District if it failed to comply with the law, which criminalizes, among other things, “any courses or classes that…advocate ethnic solidarity…” And so hundreds of students have had their curriculum literally snatched away from them at mid-year; their teachers are now required by law to assign them more “traditional” reading material that ignores the racial, gender, and class biases that have so tragically shaped our country.

When I was in high school, Bill always told us to avoid despair, get educated, and get active. So when I catch up with him in late February, I’m not surprised to find that he is leading by example. “I called Tucson Schools’ director of communications, Cara Rene, to check on this and she denied that the book had been ‘banned,’” Bill tells me, in one of our many conversations about the events in Tucson, “but (she) admitted that they had been boxed up, removed, and taken to a storage site. She said that the books were ‘evidence,’ as if teaching them were some kind of crime. I’d been following Arizona’s attack on Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, and read in late December that the administrative law judge Lewis Kowal, had upheld Superintendant John Huppenthal’s order that Tucson kill its Mexican American Studies program or face financial retribution. The whole thing was such a racist attack on the students and teachers in the program, as well as an attack on the whole idea of critical, social justice teaching.” When I ask Bill what makes this outlawed program so unique, he replies:

“The classes are electric with meaning.” (That should sound familiar to anyone who’s been a student in Bill’s classroom). “This is a curriculum about things that matter. It addresses burning issues of inequality and oppression, of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. And the teachers have high expectations of students, not just in terms of test scores, but in terms of engaging in big ideas, in thinking about how to make the world a better place, in thinking about a future where they can make a difference. The teachers have respect for the students and also affection for them. The whole program embraces Chicano/a culture. It asserts that, ‘You have a rich history, you have a rich culture, and we are going to ground the curriculum in that history and culture.’ Students are encouraged to see themselves as activists for social and racial justice. This program is the ‘threat of a good example.’ It’s no wonder that people threatened by this kind of activism set out to destroy the program.”

Officials in Tucson, of course, dispute this characterization. Arizona’s Superintendant of School’s John Huppenthal, the driving force behind enforcing HB 2281, has used words such as “biased” and “irresponsible” to characterize the MAS program. Bill’s response?

“There is so much that is offensive in the attack on the Mexican American Studies program, but one piece of this is the notion that (it) is “biased”, “propagandistic”, etc., and the mainstream curriculum is fair and true and balanced. No. It’s not. For starters, I’m aware of no U.S. history text that deals adequately with the United States’ theft of Mexico in the U.S. war with Mexico, and the human consequences of that war. That’s a bias, but because we’ve become so accustomed to curricular silences and inadequacies, it’s only when those silences are addressed that the ‘bias’ label gets pulled out. They want their ideology taught as fact, but they represent it as commonsense, as neutrality.”

I confess that I’m tempted to see this latest episode in Tucson as just another right wing nightmare from Arizona.  But Bill sees it differently, suggesting that HB 2281 isan extreme example of a much larger trend:

“The standard curriculum throughout the country is becoming more and more dominated by…a handful of huge corporations that control the textbook industry, and textbooks are increasingly shaping the curriculum. Here in ‘green’ and ‘liberal’ Portland, OR, for example, students take onlyone class in high school dedicated to the study of the world. It used to be called Global Studies, but now is called Modern World History, which is the same title of the Holt McDougal textbook. The textbook contains exactly two pages on the Iraq war, and only one ‘critical writing’ activity: ‘Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.’ I’m not kidding. There is not a single mention of popular opposition to the war.” Bill reminds me that in February of 2003, the world saw the largest anti-war demonstrations in the history of the planet, a fact barely covered by American mainstream press, and completely ignored by the textbook in question. “This is simply to point out that the broader struggle that Tucson is a part of is between programs like Mexican American Studies — which are critical and alert to issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity, oppression, popular resistance, connected to community activism, with high and meaningful expectations for students — and a top-down, corporate-driven, scripted, test-heavy curriculum. In curriculum, like everywhere, I suppose, it’s the 99% vs. the 1%.”

I’ve been teaching for almost twenty years, and I’ve never met a colleague who didn’t want to make the world a better place. But Bill has never been content to see that mission as an act of blind faith. He once wrote: “I see teaching as political action,” and he is good to his word. “How can one think intelligently about society when a law insists that teachers and students cannot look through the lens of race, class, or ethnicity? According to the Pew Research Center, whites in this country have 18 times the wealth that Latinos have.Why is that? I guess Arizona lawmakers don’t want students to ask questions like this. So through Rethinking Schools, I’ve been doing what I can to spread the word about what’s happening in Tucson and organizing solidarity with the program. Rethinking Schools joined the national Teacher Activist Groups network to organize No History Is Illegal, a campaign to encourage teachers around the country to teach lessons from the Mexican American Studies program or to teach about the program’s suppression and book banning there. This is not a done deal.”

Since we’re back on the subject of censorship, I ask about Bill’s book. Why rethink Columbus? Why choose him as a focal point for a progressive curriculum for American history?

“Columbus is still probably the first place in the curriculum that children encounter different races, different cultures, different languages – different nations – confronting each other. So it’s a metaphor for how we should treat one another, and how nations and other cultures should treat each other. And this metaphor is a metaphor of domination, of colonialism, of racism.” And here, I find myself reminded of the “lies my teachers told me” back in Illinois, where I attended grade school. Columbus discovered America. Columbus proved that the world was round. Columbus is our national hero. “Children’s books as well as textbooks cheered Columbus on – they cheered on naked imperialism. A representative of an empire thousands of miles away, comes to lands that are inhabited and takes over. In some ways, we didn’t choose Columbus, he chose us. Who else in the curriculum is so universally known? Even today, if I start out the little jingle, ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety two…’ students can finish it. But ask those same students, ‘So who was here first, who did Columbus find when he got to the Americas?’ A few students may say, ‘The Indians.’ But if I ask them, ‘Which nationality?’ I’ve never had anyone say, ‘The Tainos.’ So ‘Columbus’ makes a great lesson in whose lives the curriculum celebrates and whose lives are rendered invisible.”

This is how Bill used to introduce Columbus to high schoolers: he’d steal a student’s purse. Announcing to the class that it was now ‘his,’ he dismissed the howls of protests with the claim that his possession of the purse proved ownership. Finally, after a protracted battle with his students (whom he describes as “generally fair minded”), he’d ask: “What if I discovered the purse, then would it be mine?” The inevitable rejection of his absurd claim opened the door for Bill’s kicker question: “Why do we say that Columbus discovered America?” Looking back on it now, Bill says, “In some ways, I simply followed my students. They responded with such passion – and compassion – when we studied about Columbus’s arrival, that I kept developing new lessons.”

The foundation of every lesson in Bill’s class was student involvement. Today, “project based learning” is practiced with great frequency, but back in the early ’80s, Bill was the only academic teacher I had who used role-plays. Bill recalls, “I remember well the first one I wrote at Jefferson High School here in Portland. It was my first year there, 1979, and the role-play was about the Cherokee Indian Removal, and the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. The response of students was a revelation. The class fired to life. Arguments were more passionate, more imaginative, and afterward, students seemed more eager to learn about how things actually turned out in real life — and also seemed to remember the events more fully.” Bill decided to make role-plays a staple of his work in the classroom. “(They) allow students to see that history is not inevitable. It’s not laid out in a neat little row of ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened.’ Through participating in role-plays, and confronting difficult historical choices, and building alliances with other groups, students can see human effort makes a difference.”

Does it? Really? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting tired. Maybe I just haven’t entirely shed my adolescent penchant towards despair. Whatever the reason, I start to find the whole this episode in Tucson, and the state of education in America, incredibly depressing. So I ask my former teacher: is there cause for hope?

“I spent all of this morning with my two and half year old grandson, Xavier,” Bill answers me. “So I have no right NOT to be hopeful. His future – everyone’s future – is at stake. Despair is self-fulfilling, and self-indulgent. Hope is not the same as optimism. One may or may not be optimistic, but hope is necessary to keep doing the work that can, that may, make a difference. When we have people we love, when we care about the world, we need to stay hopeful, we need to stay politically active.

“So hope is essential, but there are also some grounds for optimism. Think of all the activism of the past year. Think of how quickly many people have embraced a language that challenges inequality, that speaks critically of “the 1%.” I recommend watching the film about the Tucson Mexican American Studies program, Precious Knowledge. Young people included in the film show a capacity to change and grow and to see themselves as part of broader movements for justice. Whenever I see that happen, it makes me hopeful. And no one connected to this program in Tucson is giving up. Another source of hope, as I mentioned, is the No History Is Illegal campaign, joined by teachers and students all over the country — actually, from all over the world. There have been so many imaginative acts of solidarity.

“With respect to how to support folks in Tucson, people can donate to the Save Ethnic Studies legal struggle, which is ongoing. And people can join the No History Is Illegal campaign at http://www.teacheractivistgroups.org/tucson/.” And now I’m reminded of the real gift of Bill’s classroom. Many teachers have encouraged me to think critically; only one has challenged me to take action, to see myself a part of living history, and become a catalyst for justice and social change. It was through Bill’s work that I finally understood Marley’s admonition to Scrooge and made it my own: mankind is indeed my business.

Thirty years ago, Bill Bigelow was my teacher. I got participate in a thrilling classroom environment that provoked me to ask essential and uncomfortable questions. My peers and I learned that we had freedom – freedom to speak out, freedom to dissent, freedom to critique our own country – a freedom and a right that every textbook trumpets as a bed rock of our American democracy. It was everything that education is supposed to be: fun, challenging, and profoundly exhilarating. Nobody interrupted that process. Our books were not taken away. Our lesson plans weren’t made more “traditional”. Our ideas were not outlawed. And now, we are better citizens: administrators, teachers, writers, and artists who believe wholeheartedly that we are responsible for the world in which we live.

Things are different for teenagers in Tucson. Like me, these students have come to life in a classroom full of excitement and electric with meaning. But now, their education has been short-circuited by a small and well-placed group of lawmakers and administrators. These powerful adults are America’s un-teachers. Given their way, students in Tucson would un-learn their critical thinking skills, un-remember their thrilling classroom discoveries, and un-discover Columbus himself, forever forgetting his and their place in American history. John Huppenthal derides the Mexican American Studies program’s curriculum as “Marxist”. But his leadership is pure Stalin, whose mantra: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We don’t let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?” is alive and well in Tucson.

But history is not inevitable. It’s not laid out in a neat little row. Human effort does make a difference, and when we have people we love, we need to stay politically active. Everyone’s future is at stake. So when you’re choosing your direction, pay attention to the signpost. It’s time to get busy.

David Berkson

4/7/12

Click here to read the unedited transcript of my interview with Bill Bigelow.

* Bill always spoke with the owner of the purse prior to the start of the class to get her permission. Bill describes his work in this area with great detail in his book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.

Transcript of Interview with Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow began teaching high school social studies in Portland in 1978, and taught at Grant, Jefferson, and Franklin. He is the author or co-editor of numerous books on teaching including The Power in Our Hands: A Curriculum on the History of Work and Workers in the United States, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Rethinking Our Classrooms (Volumes One and Two), Rethinking Globalization, The Line Between Us, and A People’s History for the Classroom. He is the curriculum editor for  Rethinking Schools magazine and co-directs the online Zinn Education Project. He lives in Portland with his wife, Linda Christensen.

I interviewed Bill over a period of several days between February 20 through 27 of 2012. Below is the unedited transcript of our conversation:

David Berkson: How did you find out about the suspension of Mexican American Studies in Tucson, and the subsequent boxing up of Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years?

Bill Bigelow: I’d been following Arizona’s attack on Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, and read in late December that the administrative law judge, Lewis Kowal, had upheld Superintendent John Huppenthal’s order that Tucson kill its Mexican American Studies program or face financial retribution. The whole thing was such a racist attack on the students and teachers in the program, as well as an attack on the whole idea of critical, social justice teaching. And Kowal added a log to the fire, saying that the program taught in a way that was “emotionally charged,” as if one can teach about the vicious history of racism in this country, and Arizona in particular, and war, in a way that is not “emotionally charged.” So it was racist, but it was also just plain stupid. At the request of Kris Collett, who coordinates the Rethinking Schools blog, I wrote a blog post on this, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country–Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War,” which was picked up by Commondreams.org. Then on January 13th, I heard from Jeff Biggers, the journalist who has done the best work following events in Tucson, that the book I edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus, had been banned by Tucson Schools. In fact, school officials had actually gone into class with students present and boxed up the books and removed them. I called Tucson Schools’ director of communications, Cara Rene, to check on this and she denied that the book had been “banned,” but admitted that they had been boxed up, removed, taken to a storage site, and that teachers in the Mexican American Studies program were not allowed to teach from these any longer. She said that the books were “evidence,” as if teaching them were some kind of crime. Biggers’ first story about this for Salon.com, “Who’s Afraid of ‘The Tempest’?,” went viral, as they say, and helped alert people around the country that all was not well in Tucson.

It doesn’t appear that you’ve been sitting back in despair and watching these events take place. As an educator/activist, and editor of one of the books that was banned, what kinds of steps have you been taking in response to HB 32281 and its implementation?

Right. The attack on Tucson’s program is definitely an example of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The rationale for the law, HB 2281, is wrong for so many reasons. It’s an attempt to end a program that helps students stay in school, do well in other classes and even on the standardized tests that are supposedly so sacred these days, that leads to higher graduation rates and acceptance to college. And it’s wrong academically. How can one think intelligently about society when a law insists that teachers and students cannot look through the lens of race, class, or ethnicity? According to the Pew Research Center, whites in this country have 18 times the wealth that Latino/as have. Why is that? I guess Arizona lawmakers don’t want students to ask questions like this. So through Rethinking Schools, I’ve been doing what I can to spread the word about what’s happening in Tucson and organizing solidarity with the program. Rethinking Schools joined the national Teacher Activist Groups network to organize No History Is Illegal, a campaign to encourage teachers around the country to teach lessons from the Mexican American Studies program or to teach about the program’s suppression and book banning there. Both Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project, which I co-direct, have posted regularly on our facebook pages. This is not a done deal.

What’s special about Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, and what have the students lost as a result of its suspension?

David, yes, great question. First, I need to say that I have not visited the program there, so my thoughts are based on the film, Precious Knowledge, talking and corresponding with teachers there as well as with others who have spent time in classes, reading over parts of the program’s curriculum, and also reading the official audit of the program that the school district commissioned. There are many qualities about the program that strike me as, well, precious, and that ought to be preserved — and emulated elsewhere. First, this is a curriculum about things that matter. The classes get students focused on real-world issues. And the classes address burning issues of inequality and oppression; of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. The classes are electric with meaning. And the teachers have high expectations of students — not just in terms of test scores, but in terms of engaging in big ideas, in thinking about how to make the world a better place, in thinking about a future where they can make a difference. The teachers have respect for the students and also affection for them. The whole program embraces Chicano/a culture — it asserts that, “You have a rich history, you have a rich culture, and we are going to ground the curriculum in that history and culture and in your lives. One line from Precious Knowledge struck me. Dr. Augustine Romero, one of the key people in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program says that the school is not just part of the community, we need to make the community part of the school. That’s exactly right. Romero says that if you peel the program down to its essence, it’s about love; it’s about respecting our common humanity. And then there is the activist component. Students are encouraged to see themselves as activists for social and racial justice. This program is the “threat of a good example.” It’s no wonder that people threatened by this kind of activism set out to destroy the program.

I was struck by the fact that officials went into the class and boxed up the offending books in front of students. You’ve spent decades in the classroom. What do you make of this? Does it strike you as a tactical PR blunder, or might the administration deliberately have been trying to intimidate the teachers and students?

Yes, I was incredulous that this is how it was handled at some Tucson schools. At first I thought that maybe they were trying to draw national attention to the absurdity and obscenity of Arizona’s crushing of the program — that this was an intentional over-reaction to embarrass the state officials who initiated the attack on Mexican American Studies. Again, I’m not there and don’t know these administrators, but my impression now is that this was an attempt to show state officials that the elimination of the program was being faithfully carried out. When I spoke with the district spokesperson after Jeff Biggers’ Salon.com piece had been published, she was adamant that no books had been “banned.” So in a very brief period of time the school district recognized that the physical removal of the books was turning into a public relations disaster. Cara Rene and other district officials protested that some of the books were available in libraries, so students had access to them, and the books had not been “banned.” But this just drew attention to the fact that they were not allowing teachers to use these materials in class — in fact, that the books HAD been banned for use with students. How ridiculous that kids were permitted to read these in the library, but not discuss them with their peers in a classroom context. But back to your point. Yes, the fact that school officials entered the classroom to seize these books was a way of saying, “We’re watching you.” It was a gesture of intimidation.

You were quoted in print as saying that the only other body that banned your work was South Africa. You then went on to say: “We know what the South African regime was afraid of. What is the Tucson school district afraid of?” Care to take a stab at answering your own rhetorical question?

When I wrote about this, I was a bit more careful than when I was quoted in Jeff Biggers’ piece. I don’t mean to imply that this is just a Tucson thing. This is a state law, signed by the governor and put into play by the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal. So let me begin there. In South Africa, a white elite was afraid of an education that didn’t call into question only “gutter education” — but questioned the entire gutter: the whole system of racist power and privilege. I think a similar dynamic is at work in Arizona. The fear of a white elite is not just that these kids will learn to read and write, but that they are learning critical skills. The superintendent is obsessed with Paulo Freire and his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If there is an oppressed then there has to be an oppressor, Huppenthal says. And both he and the former superintendent Tom Horne insist that this is a dangerous idea for kids to learn. As Tom Horne says, “Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.” So for the right wing, if students are not achieving their goals, it’s not because of racism or capitalism or structural inequality — it’s because young people are not taking advantage of this great land of opportunity. Huppenthal, Horne and crowd are fearful that students will begin to question “the gutter,” as they did in South Africa, and that they’ll come to see themselves as activists, as the Mexican American Studies teachers encourage. On NPR, Superintendent Huppenthal expresses the fear that the country’s racial composition is changing and this fact raises “serious concerns” about the values that we should pass on to young people. This is not narrowly about school, it’s about the character of the society we want to live in. In that respect, the ideologues who pushed HB 2281 “get it.”

I’m glad you mentioned that it’s not just about Tucson; you anticipated my next question. Is Tucson an aberration, or its banning of Mexican American Studies indicative of a larger national trend in education?

One concern is that with the extreme actions taken in Arizona or in Texas, that we can be left with the impression that all is good everywhere else. But, in fact, the standard curriculum throughout the country is becoming more and more dominated by corporations. There are just a handful of huge corporations that control the textbook industry, and textbooks are increasingly shaping the curriculum. Here in “green” and “liberal” Portland, for example, students take only class in high school dedicated to the study of the world. It used to be called Global Studies, but now is called Modern World History, which is the same title of the Holt McDougal textbook. (Holt McDougal is owned by the giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) The textbook contains exactly two pages on the Iraq war, and only one “critical writing” activity: “Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.” I’m not kidding. There is not a single mention of popular opposition to the war. Remember, in February of 2003, the world saw the largest anti-war demonstrations in history. But other than some mention of qualms by UN Security Council countries, there is not a hint of opposition activity. This same textbook, by the way, has a mere three doubt-soaked paragraphs on climate change. This is simply to point out that the broader struggle that Tucson is a part of is between programs like Mexican American Studies — which are critical; alert to issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity, oppression, popular resistance, connected to community activism, with high and meaningful expectations for students — and a top-down, corporate-driven, scripted, test-heavy curriculum. In curriculum like everywhere, I suppose, it’s the 99% vs. the 1%.

Ugh. You’re killing me, Bill. So what are teachers who are handed these textbooks supposed to do? Especially if they have HUGE classes, when the temptation to teach right out of the textbook would be hard to resist? Where does Rethinking Schools fit into this picture, and what kind of support are you offering teachers who find themselves in this corporate paradigm?

No doubt, there is a war against teacher creativity and autonomy being waged by the corporate education reformers. But teachers, especially social studies teachers, still have a lot of freedom. And there is often language in the standards about “multiple perspectives,” “diversity,” and “balance” that can be used to push for the inclusion of content in the curriculum that most likely is not in the textbooks — and certainly not there in meaningful ways. Rethinking Schools publications like Rethinking Columbus, Rethinking Globalization, Teaching for Joy and Justice, Rethinking Mathematics, The Line Between Us, etc., offer teachers practical, hands-on resources to teach a richer, more authentic, more critical curriculum. These are not just books of lesson plans developed in cubicles far removed from the classroom. Our books — and our magazine, Rethinking Schools — are filled with stories from practicing teachers who describe how this teaching plays out in particular schools with particular groups of students. On one level, these are concrete lessons that are an alternative to the textbooks. But in a broader sense, Rethinking Schools is a way to say to teachers, “There is another model. It’s possible to teach about the real world, to encourage students to question, at the same time we teach academic skills.” Of course, this in-school work is not instead of joining campaigns to challenge corporate reforms, and to demand that our unions fight for our right to teach and for kids’ right to a real education. It’s in addition to it. It can all seem daunting, but there is magnificent work going on all around the country, so there are grounds for hope

The use of the word “balance” is interesting. I noticed the Huppenthal bandied the word about quite a bit in the Democracy Now debate. He seemed to be positioning himself and the Tucson Unified School board as bastions of reason against a dangerous, left-wing, Marxist cabal of irresponsible teachers. Did you ever have to deal with accusations like that when you were in the classroom? Was there ever a specific incident when an administrator or parent personally confronted you with a similar complaint? If so, how did you deal with it?

I’ll answer that, but first I want to comment on Huppenthal. There is so much that is offensive in the attack on the Mexican American Studies program, but one piece of this is the notion that the MAS program is biased, propagandistic, etc. and the mainstream curriculum is fair and true and balanced. No. It’s not. For starters, I’m aware of no U.S. history text that deals adequately with the United States’ theft of Mexico in the U.S. war with Mexico, and the human consequences of that war. That’s a bias, but because we’ve become so accustomed to curricular silences and inadequacies, it’s only when those silences are addressed that the “bias” label gets pulled out. And Huppenthal and Horne both begin from the explicit and oft-stated premise that kids should be taught that this is the “land of opportunity” and everyone can make it as an individual. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but we are not allowed to represent our personal conclusions as Truth. They want their ideology taught as fact, but they represent it as commonsense, as neutrality.

To your question. Sure. When I taught at Franklin High School I remember a parent coming in at parent conferences holding a reading that I’d given students. He was shaking, he was so angry. It was an article by Kevin Danaher discussing the roots of hunger in Africa. Danaher’s thesis was that poverty was not an original state — that Africa has been underdeveloped, as the historian Walter Rodney called it; that poverty was the product of colonialism and lingering unequal patterns of trade and ownership. Why this one article would be so offensive, I’m not sure. But it pointed the finger away from individuals, and challenged the notion that people are poor because they are lazy or bad workers or stupid. And I’ve had parents tell me explicitly that high school is a place to learn facts and then facts can be analyzed in college. “Just teach my son the facts,” a student’s father told me one time. But I should say that in almost 30 years of teaching, I’ve had relatively few complaints. Maybe they just complained about me over the diner table. I think that for the most part, find a more critical, conversation-rich, antiracist curriculum exhilarating — at least at the schools where I’ve taught. Students tend to have a pretty strong sense of fairness and they bring that to class.

Is it fair to say that the battle we’re seeing in Tucson is ultimately a battle between two different and ultimately irreconcilable narratives of history?

I think so. One narrative proposes that we are all autonomous individuals — albeit united in a nation. That our freedom lies in our individual pursuit of happiness, opportunity, “success.” The other narrative insists that individuals are embedded in social classes, races, ethnicities, genders … and that our lives become better when we recognize our common interests and work with other people to advance those interests. This me vs we plays out in so many arenas. Think about climate change. One understanding of the world insists in my personal freedom — to buy and drive any car I want, to fly wherever my bank account allows, to fill my life with whatever things I can afford. A different understanding says that there is no such thing as personal consumer choice, that all our decisions have an impact on people around the world we’ll never meet and people in the future who have never been born — that these and so many others are social (and ecological) choices, not merely personal. So, yes, this is a fundamental dividing line that plays out in Tucson, but everywhere else, too.

I want to talk about Rethinking Columbus and your own work in the classroom, but as I think about your answer, it occurred to me that virtually every educational struggle I’ve seen played out seems to boil down to an argument between a democratic, participatory vision of education vs. a top down, authoritarian model. Battles over tenure at the university level, curriculum at the high school level, basic funding and class size battles, they all seem to follow that playbook, and I’m curious what you think about that.

Yes, I think that there is a lot to that, although I wouldn’t want it to seem that these are mere preferences or orientations. Different visions of education serve different social interests. The Horne/Huppenthal model may be “top down” and authoritarian. But it may be better understood as elitist, insofar as it serves the interests of the elites: Don’t think about our history (or present) in terms of class and race; don’t think about solidarity with other oppressed people; in fact, don’t think about oppression at all; and don’t encourage students to see themselves as activists for greater justice. This is an education that serves a ruling class because it discourages questioning of power relationships. The Mexican American Studies program in Tucson is — I’m not going to put it in the past tense — part of a small ‘d’ democratic movement for social equality. I guess what I’m trying to work around to saying is simply: even though we’re talking about schools and education, we’re really talking about the kind of society we want to live in. Paulo Freire — who Horne and Huppenthal hate so much — said that when we criticize authoritarian education, really we’re criticizing the capitalist system that gave rise to that kind of education

Let’s talk about one way that you’ve put forward that critique. You are co-editor of one of the banned books in Arizona, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. I’m going to risk asking an obvious question: why Columbus? Why choose him as the focal point of a curriculum, and why is he so important to rethink?

In some ways, we stumbled into Rethinking Columbus. In the late 1980s, I had written a number of articles for Rethinking Schools about my teaching of Columbus. And with the approach of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, it was clear that there was going to be a major national discussion, national struggle, over the meaning of Columbus. So we decided to put together a booklet that would offer resources for how teachers could teach a more critical, more multicultural, and more honest history. But why Columbus? First, because Columbus is still probably the first place in the curriculum that children encounter different races, different cultures, different languages — different nations — confronting each other. So it’s a metaphor for how we should treat one another, and how nations and other cultures should treat each other. And this metaphor is a metaphor of domination, of colonialism, of racism. Children’s books as well as textbooks cheered Columbus on — they cheered on naked imperialism. A representative of an empire thousands of miles away, comes to lands that are inhabited and takes over. He claims and re-names. “In the beginning there was Columbus..” In some ways, we didn’t choose Columbus, he chose us. Who else in the curriculum is so universally known? Even today, if I start out the little jingle, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two …” students can finish it. But ask those same students, “So who was here first, who did Columbus find when he got to the Americas?” A few students may say, “The Indians.” But if I ask them, “Which nationality?” I’ve never had anyone say, “The Tainos.” So “Columbus” makes a great lesson in whose lives the curriculum celebrates and whose lives are rendered invisible. In some ways, I simply followed my students. Students responded with such passion — and compassion — when we studied about Columbus’s arrival, that I kept developing new lessons.

Well, David, this interview is a great opportunity to ramble.

I know more than one of your former students who are very excited to read this when we’re done, so ramble away.

One of my memories of your classroom work is the heavy reliance upon role-plays. They were super fun, and as a sophomore in high school, I’d never encountered anything like this outside of the acting classes I’d taken. Where did you get the idea to rely so heavily on role-plays? What is the message of this particular teaching medium?

I co-taught a class called “A People’s History of Dayton,” after I graduated from Antioch College in 1974 and lived for a while in Dayton, Ohio. I think that was the first role play I ever did with a class. But I remember well the first one I wrote at Jefferson High School here in Portland. It was my first year there, 1979, and the role-play was about the Cherokee Indian Removal, and the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. Today, the idea of having students assume the roles of different social groups to confront the issues those groups faced in history seems obvious. But the response of students to that first role-play was a revelation. The class fired to life. Arguments were more passionate, more imaginative, and afterward, students seemed more eager to learn about how things actually turned out in real life — and also seemed to remember the events more fully. Howard Zinn used to say that countries are not families — that they are stratified based on race and class and ethnicity. Role-plays are a great way to bring that insight to life in the classroom, to help students grasp that idea through experience, and not simply through my telling them. Another benefit of role-play is that it allows students to see that history is not inevitable. It’s not laid out in a neat little row of “this happened then this happened then this happened.” Through participating in role-plays, and confronting difficult historical choices, and building alliances with other groups, students can see human effort makes a difference. And when it comes to social knowledge that I want my students to walk away with, that’s really a “basic skill”: we can make a difference; just because powerful interests want one thing to happen doesn’t mean that they will get their way. If I can put in a plug for the curriculum project that I co-direct, the Zinn Education Project, www.zinnedproject.org, has collected lots of the best role plays about U.S. history and offers them for free online. It’s a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change and aims to give teachers resources to teach a more critical and experiential curriculum.

What are the causes for hope? And what action can we take now in regards to Tucson specifically, and more generally, education in America?

I spent all of this morning with my two and half year old grandson, Xavier. So I have no right NOT to be hopeful. His future — everyone’s future — is at stake. Despair is self-fulfilling, and self-indulgent. Hope is not the same as optimism. One may or may not be optimistic, but hope is necessary to keep doing the work that can, that may, make a difference. When we have people we love, when we care about the world, we need to stay hopeful, we need to stay politically active.

So hope is essential, but there are also some grounds for optimism. Think of all the activism of the past year. Think of how quickly many people have embraced a language that challenges inequality, that speaks critically of “the 1%.” I recommend watching the film about the Tucson Mexican American Studies program, Precious Knowledge. Young people included in the film show a capacity to change and grow and to see themselves as part of broader movements for justice. Whenever I see that happen, it makes me hopeful. And no one connected to this program in Tucson is giving up. Another source of hope, as I mentioned, is the No History Is Illegal campaign, joined by teachers and students all over the country — actually, from all over the world. There have been so many imaginative acts of solidarity. The very week that the program was ordered shut by the Tucson school district, students and teachers at Western Washington University in Bellingham created a public display of and discussion about the banned books and curriculum materials and posted a YouTube video about their efforts, and teachers and activists in Atlanta, at the other end of the country, organized a “Teach-In on Tucson,” that same week. With respect to how to support folks in Tucson, people can donate to the Save Ethnic Studies legal struggle, which is ongoing. And people can join the No History Is Illegal campaign at http://www.teacheractivistgroups.org/tucson/.

On your broader question about education in the United States, unfortunately, it seems that many people who are otherwise thoughtful and well-intended, do not always recognize when the corporate agenda is masquerading as progressive policies. For example, the online social justice petition site Change.org promotes a petition by Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First. Rhee was the teacher-hating, test-loving superintendent of Washington, DC schools who was sent packing. Change.org should know better. Stand for Children is another organization that touts its pro-kid credentials, but is really a union-busting, and also test-loving outfit. And Obama’s education policies have more or less been a continuation of George Bush’s education policies. So where is there hope? There are new organizations like Save Our Schools (and locally, Oregon Save Our Schools), Parents Across America, the Teacher Activists Network, and also new teacher union leadership in places like Chicago and Milwaukee, which articulate a vision of schools and curriculum that are responsive to the communities they serve and to students’ needs — and to social justice more broadly. There has been a revival of activism, in part inspired by the Occupy movement.

And to end on a plug for Rethinking Schools: people can support this social justice education movement, learn more about innovative, progressive teaching, and stay current on real versus phony school reform initiatives, by subscribing to Rethinking Schools, www.rethinkingschools.org. We just turned 25, and we hope to be around for years to come.

So much of your work involves ‘rethinking’ basic assumptions. It sounds as if the Cherokee role-play in ’79 was an opportunity for you to rethink your own approach to teaching. Can you think of any other instances, either in the classroom, or perhaps even in your youth, that caused you to rethink your approach to history, and what it means to be an American?

Right. Too many to recount. I was a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam when I was a sophomore in high school, and even remember being conflicted when LBJ announced that he wouldn’t run again for re-election in 1968. So I’ve done a lot of rethinking since then. For me, learning about the history of Vietnam, and the U.S. role in supporting the restoration of French colonialism after World War II was key — learning how profoundly immoral U.S. policies were. The more I learned, the greater the sense of betrayal I felt, and the more it opened me to question other aspects of U.S. history and society. And the antiwar movement was itself a school. One of my housemates in 1971, when I worked with the Marin Peace Coalition in California, Bob Grassi, had been in the Marines in Vietnam, and had returned with deep anti-imperialist convictions. Spending time with Bob, reading activists like Dave Dellinger, George Jackson, as well as Gandhi and Marx … all of it led me to question not just the war, but the whole nature of U.S. society. The antiwar movement solidified my basic notion of what it means to be an American. As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, you have to “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” If we want the world to change, to become more democratic, we have to plunge in and try to do everything we can. This didn’t make me “anti-American,” because I constantly drew inspiration from social justice currents in U.S. history, as I do today.

But how to build an everyday pedagogy — a curriculum — that helps students question, that engages them fully, that respects the knowledge they bring to class, that makes them want to know more, that is intellectually challenging, and academically solid, and one that is hopeful — that’s a lifelong endeavor. I could teach for 30 more years and I’d still be rethinking.

* * *

Testimonials from Bill Bigelow’s Former Students

I asked a number of my former classmates to write a few words about how Bill’s class has impacted them. Here’s what they had to say:

Let’s see, how to sum up Mr. Bigelow? Favorite teacher ever. He is about 90% responsible for me turning from a self-absorbed teenager to having a mission to fight injustice in the world. Many of my most exhilarating moments in school (including college) were in his role plays, where students of many races and academic backgrounds would loudly debate how the Continental Congress or a labor negotiation should proceed. He would challenge my assumptions and press me to think more deeply about the world.

Andrew Rohn, Musician, Activist, and Co-Creator of the off-Broadway play Walmartopia

Bill Bigelow shaped the way I think by helping me to see that the study of history is a precondition to understanding the self and that personal and national identity are inextricably intertwined—heady stuff for a teenager to tackle, but Bill made it accessible and engaging. My current work in public school innovation is unquestionably influenced daily by things I learned from Bill thirty years ago.

Allen Mueller, Administrator for Atlanta Public Schools

I am teaching Ethnic Studies 101 next term and focusing on it being a time of crisis for ES, we will be watching Precious Knowledge, which my students loved last fall. I would love to tell them about a teacher that I was lucky enough to know who has had such a material impact on so many lives. It is hard to say what is most important, but one thing I think is that Ethnic Studies should prioritize pedagogy more than we do, that the classroom is a space where we can act upon our ideals and engage power in critical ways. But of course (in regards to) my time with Bill, as his student, well as a teacher, I try to remember: you don’t know what they will take away from your classes. Or when it will impact them. I remember being invited to meet a writer at Bill’s house, because he knew I wanted to be a writer, and even going to dinner at Bill’s house, meeting his partner….If you want to say that his Rethinking Education impacted me, yeah, you would be right. How can we participate in education and not be the man? That is the question!

Angie Morrill, Visiting Instructor of Native American Studies in Ethnic Studies at Oregon State Univerisity

Bill Bigelow was somewhat legendary amongst our group of artsy wanna be intellectuals long before I actually took his after school class Literature and Social Change. I never took his normal history class, but wished I had. I remembered sitting in once with Linda’s class when he was doing a role play of slave auctions and feeling exhilarated and jealous. I loved Lit and Social Change, mostly because of the exhausting and charged arguments we got in. I felt like Bill’s class was one of the few places it was safe to really sink your teeth into a political debate without fear of harshing everyone’s vibe. Bill took us all very seriously, which I’m guessing from reading some of my writings from the time, must have been a challenge. I never felt looked down upon, though I found myself arguing with him often…I remember my ideas forming in that class, often in opposition to Bill, in a way that still is firmly embedded in my mind and heart today. I often felt like Captain Kirk in that class, arguing against Marge Piercy’s vision of utopia or Bill’s relentless political vision in favor of scratching and clawing, but in the end that was mostly ironing out minutae. Bill was a signpost in high school, you could choose which direction you were going to go, but you couldn’t miss him.

Arne Johnson, Co-director of the documentary film Girls Rock!

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