Precious Knowledge

On Thursday, April 14, 2010, University of San Francisco’s School of Education, the department of Ethnic Studies and the San Francisco Unified School District sponsored the screening of the film Precious Knowledge, followed by a panel discussion with film makers and educators from USF and the San Francisco Unified School District.

The film covered the current struggle faced by students at Tucson High School in Arizona. Since 2006, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne and State Senator Russell Pearce have had their eye set on shutting down the Mexican American Studies program. The rejection and prejudice towards ethnic studies has become so extreme, that the Arizona legislator has even hinted at removing the ethnic studies program at the university level as well. Precious Knowledge is a window into the lives of Tucson students and their fight against injustice.

The film traces three particular stories of three students who attend Tucson High School and whose lives have been positively impacted by the Mexican-American/Raza studies program. Prior to the passage of the HB2281 there were other versions of the same law presented to state parliament. Those propositions were declined yet the recent version was signed into law in 2010. The purpose of this law is to ban the teaching of classes that are designed for a specific ethnic group. The law also bans classes that teach methods which can presumably be used to overthrow the government. This includes suggesting the return of Southwest land which was once Mexico’s and is now the United States’ to its country of origin. The law also prohibits any promotion of a certain race or solidarity within a racial group. Those who are anti-ethnic studies believe that the programs do not advocate individuality. Most importantly they are certain that the Mexican American studies classes create a clear division in the student body.

How can this division be possible? Mr. Horne, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, argues that the students become angry and resentful towards the United States after taking these courses because they are provided with skewed and distorted views of history. In the film those who are anti-Mexican American studies refer to the courses as “illegal” and state that as result from these courses drop-out rates have decreased. “Immoral”, is another of the preferred words used to describe the program. Some are shown to have gone as far as declaring that the country of Mexico is involved in this issue; that it is the puppeteer pulling the strings and calling the shots with the purpose of beginning a revolution. Images of teachers planting evil seeds within students thus creating evil plants were also used.

The current structure of the Latin American studies program (in general or Arizona?) contradicts all of these false accusations. First and foremost, at the core of the classes is advocacy for love. (how will you back up this claim?) Secondly, the film states that when the classes were created in 1997, its purpose was to improve education and to increase the percentage of students graduating from high school. This is because what the students were being taught in these classes caught their interest and caused them to become more involved in class participation; the pedagogy was different. Classrooms were transformed into sacred spaces and the people in them, especially the professors, became family to the students; this was their second home. Hence a strong community was formed from this bondage between students. Due to the students appreciation for their teachers, they treated them with greater respect. In the classrooms, students gained information that sparked their interest, while learning to value their culture and heritage. They became empowered.
Confidence, self-appreciation and drive for a better future were the fuel that ignitedstudents to fight for their right to keep their classes. It has been nearly a year since the HB2281 law was passed. There are no longer Mexican American classes offered, but the students have not given up; they continue to fight.
During the panel discussion, the directors gave an update on the issue. They said the Mexican American Studies program will last until the end of this semester(was this last semester?) and after that the classes will no longer be offered. The school board which had been backing the programs has now retracted its support. (why?) Students are now reaching out to other communities for support.

The inspiration for this film began with the 2006 May marches. This is because in Tucson these marches were, in great part, organized by the students. Having witnessed the students taking action and creating a political cause was what caused the directors to feel the need to share this story. They hoped that through this film awareness of the discrimination towards students could be spread. Their goal was to show people, through the personal stories of students, that there was a positive change occurring in the Latino/a society because of these classes and that without them students’ futures were in danger.
Ethnic studies impacts the students on a personal level and the entire panel agreed on that fact. All panelists took a few minutes to express the significance of these classes. One of the SFUSD teachers stated that history is a narrative that is incomplete and that ethnic studies makes it complete; it connects the dots of the entire society. It was also said that ethnic studies gives the students an understanding of the world from their perspective, hence there is a better connection and a greater desire for the students to learn. This program is part of a social movement for social justice which teaches students to be the subject of their studies and to gain better knowledge of themselves.
Currently the HB2281 is only affecting the ethnic studies program at the high school level, but the next institutions to be targeted are the universities.
This is a social issue that affects all. We must be in solidarity with our fellow students. As Cesar Chavez once said “you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” These students are no longer afraid.

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