Precious Knowledge is an educational film that hones in on the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program at Tucson High School. The film documents several Hispanic students and their professors who participated in and sought to protect the MAS program from the threat of politicians who discredited the program’s success.
The push for ethnic studies programs, like MAS, began in the 1960s, in response to the increase of Mexican American student populations and their demand for the education system to address their pedagogical needs. In 1998, the MAS program was set in place to provide students with culturally relevant information that would help them thrive academically and acquire the cognitive skills necessary to become leaders. Inevitably, the MAS program became a national model of success because the average dropout rate for Mexican-American students averaged at 48%, whereas the MAS program reflected a 100% rate of enrolled students graduating from high school and an 85% rate of enrolled students attending college.
Nevertheless, strongly opposed forces disregarded any transformative impact of ethnic studies on Mexican American student engagement and success. Instead, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, determined that the implementation of ethnic studies was teaching its students victimization and sedition. Horne repeatedly claimed that the program was “un-American” and “taught students to hate white people,” but neither of these claims was substantiated with information other than Horne’s manipulative misunderstanding of ethnic studies, let alone his misunderstanding of Chicano students.
Horne voiced that ethnic studies courses function by separating the student body by the culture they are born into and that learning should, in fact, transcend such borders of race. What Horne fails to recognize is that the education system, traditionally speaking, caters to the white American, leaving little room for Chicano students to relate to their learning environment. The narrative we are given all throughout high school protects the white American citizen and does not address the historical reality of our nation, nor does it confront the wealth of diversity legally inhabiting our borders. Chicanos students are Americans and it is unjust to revoke the opportunity for them to learn about themselves as cultural figures because it essentially removes them from our narrative altogether.
The United States is a country that prides itself on freedom of expression; it is the land of opportunity. When an ethnic studies program operates its constitutional right to express culturally informative lessons, students have an accessible opportunity to be engaged and enhance their capacity for knowledge. Yet the MAS program is criticized for “promoting the overthrow of the United States’ government” and “promoting resentment toward a race or class of people” (HB 2281). By not including diverse voices in our curriculum, we are teaching our students to inherently resent a race or class of people that isn’t reflected in the white narrative currently being enforced.
Providing ethnic studies courses is the solution for issues of inclusivity that many Chicano students face within the traditional classroom setting, such as feelings of prejudice and experiences of discrimination. The MAS program encourages students to become more culturally informed and more active within their communities, both of which influences their overall performance because students are learning to be more motivated, autonomous thinkers. Precious Knowledge relays this key understanding that not many people have been exposed to ethnic studies, thus many of their criticisms are formed on a basis of little knowledge, which is thoroughly reflected in Tom Horne’s condemnation of the MAS program, even though he failed to accept an invitation to personally investigate the classroom for himself. In this respect, Precious Knowledge endeavors to educate the masses on the significance and success of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program at Tucson High School, allowing us to truly determine whether Chicano student success is as threatening as politicians and lawmakers suggest.
Ultimately, the greatest threat rests in silencing the diverse voices that make up the United States, and we can only hope to learn from this mistake and move forward, embracing ethnic studies as time goes on.
Precious Knowledge. Directed by Aril Luis Palos. Dos Vatos Productions and Independent Television Series, 2011.