Review: PBS Precious Knowledge strikes at Arizona bias

A lecture on cultural symbols, one short scene in the Precious Knowledge documentary, debuting on PBS.Amid all the other controversy over Arizona’s brinksmanship against Latinos, it is easy to overlook one of the most unfortunate milestones in this campaign: the banning of a widely praised Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School by Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal. Of course, he wasn’t alone. Various legal steps and “get-tough” figures in Arizona were involved in banning the ethnic-studies program, which was open to all students and was greatly admired by educators. But, at the moment, Huppenthal seems to be the man jostling to become known as America’s Toughest School Superintendent (borrowing a page from the campaign book of America’s Toughest Sheriff Joe Arpaio). May 2012 news stories out of Arizona say that Huppenthal now is gunning for ethnic studies programs at the state’s universities.

The provocative PBS Independent Lens documentary airing this week, Precious Knowledge, features Huppenthal’s predecessor as suprintendent of schools, Tom Horne, who is shown in the second video clip below. Horne proved that such a campaign is popular and actually leapfrogged from the schools job to his new post as the state’s Attorney General—a post where he continues to rail against ethnic studies.

This ReadTheSpirit review of the documentary film, written by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, clearly takes a strong point of view against what politicians like Horne and Huppenthal are trying to do in quashing important educational opportunities for teenagers in Arizona. PBS’s Independent Lens series is hoping to make the same point by airing this emotionally loaded documentary.

How emotionally loaded? In one forum within the online movie database IMDB, a commenter reported on attending an early preview screening of this film on a college campus in the Midwest. The commenter wrote: “The theater was jammed full. You could have heard a pin drop (as we watched this movie) about high school students who wanted to keep their ethnic studies classes. The teachers were energetic and gifted. The students were focused and respectful. The politicians were liars with no apparent reason other than to get media attention for being opposed to these classes. As a viewer, I became outraged along with the students over the behavior of the adults who should have been honest and honorable role models. I haven’t been so moved by any film in over 20 years. We all need to take care of these young people who are seeking a quality education from the Tucson School District.

At ReadTheSpirit, we would note: First, Independent Lens is showing a shortened 55-minute version of the original 75-minute documentary. The filmmakers do give Horne and other anti-ethnic-studies advocates some balancing air time. You can see, in the clip below, that Horne is shown both in a public appearance and in a private interview. We would argue that the importance of this film is not to encourage name calling or to dismiss Horne and Huppenthal as eccentric monsters. Rather, they represent a strong political point of view that is popular with millions of Americans. Seeing the film is an important step toward understanding the broader cost of these “get tough” campaigns. In this case, a generation of teenagers are barred from an experience that seems to have been very healthy for many kids in recent years.

That’s why this documentary is worth viewing this week—or finding later on DVD.


Independent Lens does not air across the entire PBS network of affiliates. So, check PBS’s Independent Lens website for more information, including local showtimes, more video clips you can watch online and a link to purchase the DVD directly from the producers.


The first video clip shows 4 minutes of Precious Knowledge and gives viewers an overall sense of the issues in the Tucson high school. (NOTE: If you do not see a video screen in your version of this story, click here to reload the story in your browser.)


The second video clip is only 3 minutes and includes Tom Horne.


This review published at, a journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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