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.
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.