By chance I met a respected adversary in the Freudian Sip, and I took a moment to exchange pleasantries. Out of the blue he asked me how was Chicana/o Studies conceptualized. It is one of those questions that, although asked and answered a thousand times, I have not fully dug into the recesses of my memory.
In looking back, all educational reform in the United States begins and ends with John Dewey (1859-1952). His Inquiry Method has run through reform movements in the United States and abroad since the early 1900s. It was resurrected in the 1960s and is alive today in what we call critical thinking. Having started out as a junior teacher, I experienced heavy doses of Dewey throughout my education.
Today, Dewey has been forgotten in most narratives and education has been captured by neo-liberals who are trying to convert education into a cash register. Texas and other states are passing laws saying that classroom teaching experience is no longer required to be a superintendent of schools, a practice that has spread to California and Washington DC.
However, Chicana/o studies thankfully was born in another era and is still kept alive by people who want to educate and not train students. Reform and experimentation are woven into its fabric.
ChS was not based on any particular theory or model. It owes debts to educators such as George I. Sanchez who in turn were influenced by Dewey, the godfather of the Inquiry Method.
In the fall of 1957, American education entered an era of intense educational reform. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik that led to cries for educational reform with different currents forming. Initially, it was an anti-reform movement that wanted to go back to a mythical “get back to the basics” and convert education into math and science factories. However, the Democrats took over in 1961 widening the trajectory of educational reform.
Billions of dollars went into reforming the teaching of math and science, and not as much money went into the humanities and the social sciences. History rightfully claimed to be more part of the humanities than the social sciences so it had the best of all worlds.
Another American trait surfaced; higher education seemed more interested in getting grants than actually implementing reforms. Much of the experimentation was eventually forgotten and the books on the findings were forgotten. However, for the moment, many of us were the beneficiaries of the intellectual ferment.
The sense of urgency produced by Sputnik and the fear that perhaps the United States was not Number 1 made it clear that it was in the national interest to change education, i.e., curriculum in mathematics and science, but also the humanities and social sciences as well as education.
Aside from teaching and community involvement, I belonged to the California Council for the Social Studies that were made up of many young radical scholars who wanted to change methods and the way history was taught. Our guru was Edwin Fenton, whose books on the Inquiry Method can today be found on Amazon for as little as one penny.
The California Council was very successful for a time until it was intensely red baited by Max Rafferty, the state superintendent of public instruction who waged war on the reformers calling us Communist and subversives because they wanted to teach students to think critically.
My first three textbooks. The Story of the Mexican American, 1969, 3d grade, A Mexican American Chronicle 1969, 8th grade, and Cultures in Conflict, 1970, 5th grade, were based on the Inquiry Method and influenced by Edwin Fenton. They were adopted by the State of California until the forces of evil went after them at the same time they went after John Caughey, John Hope Franklin, and Ernest May’s better known Land of the Free: a history of United States.
The Sputnik era was important because Americans were out to prove their superiority over the Soviet Union. But once the money dried up so did the interest of higher education. It influenced me and others since it gave us the opportunity to experiment with ideas. Unfortunately, even Schools of Education abandoned experimentation once the money dried up.
The emphasis of the neoliberals who eventually gained control was that everything could be resolved by a greater emphasis on higher academic standards, especially in science and mathematics.
During this period I had the opportunity to work in a teacher training programs under Julian Nava and Ray McHugh in 1967 and 68. Having had public school teaching experience and a teacher trainer for eight years, I was their classroom consultant.
I had received my PhD in 1968 and since 1966 taught experimental courses in Mexican American Studies at Mt. St. Mary’s downtown campus. I also began as a tenure track position at Dominguez State College where in order to justify its existence its president Leo Cain experimented with curriculum. Everyone was required to have an Area Studies Major and a disciplinary major. We took workshops on the newest trends, and I learned about Area Studies that later became the model for Chicana/o studies.
No one person can be given credit for the formation of ChS or any other reform program. I consider ChS to be revolutionary. It is revolutionary because it frees students’ minds. It motivates them to think and demand more democracy. To achieve this we must preserve our memories since forgotten memories are wasted years.
 John Dewey, Democracy and Education (Radford VA: Wilder Publications, 2009)
— by Rodolfo F. Acuña