I was browsing the net and a Salon article titled Who’s Afraid of The Tempest? caught my attention. The article talks about a recently passed Arizona law prohibiting the teaching of Mexican-American studies in Arizona public schools on the grounds that these courses are political rather than pedagogical in nature.
What does this have to do with Shakespeare and The Tempest, you ask. Well, not very much. The title of the article is, I think, intentionally misleading. Arizona has not banned the teaching of The Tempest (or any other Shakespeare play for that matter) in English literature courses, only in Mexican-American studies courses. And why? Because the teaching of it there is purely political.¹
The Tempest has not been banned and the Salon editors know it. What has been banned, however, is the exploitation of The Tempest (and other literary texts) by ideologically driven academics/activists.
The charge that Arizona has banned Shakespeare is calculated to outrage the public and gain converts to the cause of ethnic studies. Why else would Salon use The Tempest in its title rather than one of the following prohibited books:
- Occupied America: A History of Chicanos
- Critical Race Theory
- Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years
- Pedogogy of the Oppressed
These books are not textbooks, but rather thinly disguised political tracts. Consequently, Arizona is right when it says they should not be taught in public schools. Having said that, if parents want their children to read them, they are perfectly welcome to do so. They could even have their kids sleep with the books under their pillows and commit them to memory. They are not, however, entitled to have them taught in public schools merely because they happen to like the ideological viewpoints their authors espouse.
Not surprisingly, the proponents of ethnic studies have compared the Arizona law to book burning. This, of course, is rank demagoguery. Arizona has not banned the sale, distribution and reading of a single book. It has merely determined what books may and may not be taught in the public schools it funds.
There are, I am quite sure, many books Chicanos would object to were they taught in the public schools. For example:
- Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror, by J.D. Hayworth
- The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal by Mark Krikorian
- The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? by Dennis Baron
If it’s accurate to accuse members of the Arizona legislature of being “book-burners” for declaring inappropriate the teaching of Critical Race Theory to captive public school students, it is likewise accurate to accuse Chicanos of being “book-burners” for declaring inappropriate the teaching of, say, The New Case Against Immigration, to those students. Politicizing the public schools is wrong no matter whose ideology is being advanced.
There are many opinions as to what books are and are not appropriate to teach in the public schools, but it is neither book burning nor censorship for Arizona to eschew the teaching of one book and allow the teaching of another. On the contrary, it is its duty to do so.
Finally, I urge those who defend the teaching of The Tempest in ethnic studies courses to recall that in that play it is Caliban, the native, and not Prospero, the evil, white, European imperialist, who wants to burn books. Here’s Caliban:
Remember, first to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.
I doubt that this reading of The Tempest would be welcome in a Mexican-American History course.
¹ For decades, politically motivated academics have co-opted The Tempest and taught it as Shakespeare’s personal screed against Columbus and the discovery of the New World. There can be only one reason to teach The Tempest in a course on Mexican-American history; to promulgate the notion that Mexicans are the innocent victims of white, European imperialism. Whether you agree with this premise or not, it has no place in a History course.