1. “Arizona Legislature Passes Bill Banning Ethnic Studies Programs.”

I thank my Alliant University colleague Eduardo Morales for an email summarizing that story:
“After making national headlines for a new law on illegal immigrants, the Arizona Legislature sent Gov. Jan Brewer a bill Thursday that would ban ethnic studies programs in the state that critics say currently advocate separatism and racial preferences. The bill, which passed 32-26 in the state House, had been approved by the Senate a day earlier.... The new bill would make it illegal for a school district to teach any courses that …[among other things] 'advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.'

“State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tom Horne called passage in the state House a victory…. ‘Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds,’ Horne said.”
Won't that surprise every kid who’s ever been ground down at school because of national origin, religion, skin color, or whatnot other irrelevancies!
Horne continued, "This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism."
It always amazes me to hear the words “individualism,” “family values,” and “patriotism” emitted from the same mouth in pritmuch the same paragraph. Here’s where I ask knowledgeable SB friends for help with the psychology of it. If America is just a collection of individuals, atoms without valence, in what sense are we a nation? Isn’t some element of taking care of each other – as opposed to taking care only of oneself – a minimum requirement for a nation? And doesn’t that include taking care of you, even if I happen to personally dislike you? Doesn’t it include taking care of Arizona senators, even if I dislike them as a group?

Well, that last question was a lob. All Arizonans take care of their senators, who are paid from the public purse.

If on the other hand there are pockets of valence – some shared values among Americans – is it not legitimate to study who shares what? And mightn’t one such investigation be called ethnic studies?

How can rugged individualism jibe with family values? Families must sometimes decide and act as a unit; members must sacrifice for each other and for the whole. Which individual in the unit gets to decide? Individual or family values – can’t have it both ways! Unless the whole thing is a thin cover for adult males getting to be individuals while wife and kiddies must suppress themselves. And in fact, housewife anomie was the theme of several great novels of the 1950s and 60s.

As long as rugged individualism, family values, and patriotism are the simultaneous battle cries of folks on the far right, their position won’t have logical integrity. The rest of us quietly muddle through to some complex balance of devotion to self, family, and country. This may not be logical either, but it sure seems less hypocritical.

2. Cultural identity

Given what I’ve written above, you may be surprised to know that my university’s “cultural identity ceremony” fills me with horror.

I wrote a book on Zen and decision-making. It includes this passage:

     Isn’t it odd that the English word “business” literally means busy-ness, and doesn’t seem to imply anything about making good products, making a profit, or building a lasting enterprise? It stems from the Puritan notion that the idle mind is Satan’s playground. In any case, plenty of people cannot stand to be idle. They always have to be doing something. Indeed, they define their identity in terms of doing. When they spend a quiet day by a river, they call it fishing – even if they will be happier not to catch any fish!
     Other people define themselves by what they experience. Sensory input is essential to their identity. The radio is always on, or the TV. Entertainment must be a movie, a performance, or an exhibit.
     Zazen, obviously, takes us away from the doing and experiencing modes, and causes us to examine how central these things really are to our identity.
     Artists define themselves by their creations. Neurotics by the little bundle of tensions they assemble for themselves each morning. Hypochondriacs define identity in terms of their ailments, always pleased to give an “organ recital” should you be so foolish as to inquire about their health. Still others define themselves by their family relationships, their hometown, or their tribal affiliation.
     Zazen is an experience all our own, that returns us to the well of creativity, lets us drop our tensions, and improves our health. Only you can know what is essential to your selfhood. As you cannot recognize the essential while you cling to the non-essentials – your tensions and pretensions – a path of non-attachment is the best way to find out who you are.
     Sitting zazen may lead you to the point of view that you are, at bottom, a point of view. In Mexico, you can buy a ten-inch square construction of sticks and yarn called an “ojo de Diós,” an eye of God. A person who is meditating, calmly observant, well-connected to the universe but with neither attachment nor aversion to doing, consuming, or creating may well be called an ojo de Diós. This, though, is whimsically poetic, and from a Zen perspective, just another idea to get past.
     Freud categorized people as anal-retentive, oral-assimilative, and so on. In contrast, as we shall see in coming chapters, a Zen adept eats when hungry, shits when needful, and can pay full attention, with an attitude of acceptance and equanimity, to each.
     A child psychologist once asked a variety of children to draw pictures of themselves. Suburban kids of European descent tended to fill up the paper with drawings of their faces. Navajo children, instead, drew a tiny human figure surrounded by outlines of mountain and desert scenery, animals and plants. These diverse views of identity are wonderful. Each is valid, and each is limiting.
I love cultural celebrations. All of ‘em. The diversity of styles in food, music, and dance – and learning how they got to be the way they are, and hearing about the role this song or that dish played in my students’ lives – fascinating and enlightening. But cultural identity? Nope.

The Zen lesson above – which is an important part of my life – leads me to ask: Why is persuading a young person to define his identity (for example) as Cuban-American, or as a Mayflower descendant, less harmful than telling him he is nothing but a slave, or an untouchable, or a stupid person?

And it leads me to answer: It is not less harmful. Pride in one’s heritage? Absolutely – it’s admirable and empowering, as well as interesting. Wrapping up one’s identity in it? Damaging and limiting.

If we encourage our students and our offspring to embrace cultural identity, we are circumscribing their mental perspectives and lowering a glass ceiling over their sense of their own potentialities.

Will a majority of these young people attain anything like Zen enlightenment? No – but you and I don’t want to be the reason they didn’t. And I hasten to stress that I am not pushing some vapid “world culture” where everyone is the same. The message is, ethnic pride, yes; ethnic identity, no.

A woman colleague recently tried to convince me that femaleness is a culture. I found the notion a bit odd, but if it’s true, it proves my point: Young women have historically been told, you are a girl, and girls do not do this, nor do girls do that. The woman who grows up to say “I am a female scientist” has also subtly put four walls around her behaviors and perceptions. Contrast her to her labmate, who describes herself as “a woman, a scientist, a voter, a former Navy lieutenant, a Chicana, a gardener, and many other things” and who, through hard experience and open-minded introspection, has learned which of her daily habits and norms are dispensable (when a situation calls for it) and which of them form the essential core of her nature.

Though it makes university administrators squirm, I believe our job as teachers is to help students remove their blinders, not make them fit tighter. Never fear, it will not lead to social chaos. Let's give students every chance to find themselves, whether it be within their ethnic customs or without. In my university’s case, one possible tactic is simple: Change the name of the Cultural Identity Ceremony to the Cultural Pride Festival.

Many of my students find the Zen argument rather advanced and difficult. If you get it, great, and if you don't, that's OK too. Note, though, that despite superficial similarities it has little to do with the kind of individualism Arizona school superintendent Horne espouses. I quote again from my book:
Cutting away attachments does not turn one into an unfeeling robot. On the contrary, because the ego is an imaginary wall between our “individuality” and our fellow humans, loosing the attachment to one’s own ego enables a more selfless love for others.