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.
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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!