Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Culture Wars, Redux

The New York times published an article on December 4 titled, “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing.” According to reporter, Motoko Rich, though a quarter of America’s students are hispanic, “...nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers.”

Rich juxtaposes this lack of characters of color in what students read with data on substantially lower performance of Hispanic students compared to white students, the clear suggestion being that perhaps there is a cause and effect relationship. She also quotes the opinions of several professors of education to bolster her theme, who don't, however, even bother to cite data. Students have a, “different kind of connection,” says one professor. The subject matter, “might be puzzling,” says another. “They start thinking of their language or practices or familiar places and values as not belonging in school,” guesses a third. Their point seems to be that it is common sense that if students don’t see characters like themselves, then they won’t be able to relate.

To be clear, as a teacher of literature, I have long been a fan of widening the curriculum with materials outside of the traditional canon. My belief is that the old notion of exposing oneself to a specific list of great works was perhaps a reasonable endeavor in a bygone age when one’s culture was more narrowly circumscribed. It used to be a doable feat, but in an increasingly global culture, it is becoming all but impossible. Realistically, there’s too much really great literature out there to limit oneself to to one narrow cultural stream.

But I’ve never been convinced, nor does Rich’s article convince me, that a student’s sense of worth or ability to fully engage in literature is necessarily limited by the culture from which the book springs, nor the types of characters it contains.

It should go without saying that while some writers write to expose their readers to an unfamiliar side of a familiar scenario, many are attempting the exact opposite: bringing alive for their readers a totally unfamiliar world. Consider Treasure Island, or Moby Dick, or The Jungle Book. Writers are also very often specifically showing us how characters share the same fundamentally human values we do, though they might be, on the surface, assuredly not be like us at all. J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, created Hobbits as specifically not human, yet made them so recognizably English, with all the eccentricities and strengths of English culture, that it is impossible to miss the connection. A fairy tale, like “The Three Little Pigs,” teaches a lesson about how working hard and being smart is essential for survival, which is clearly not relevant to actual pigs.

Leaving the teaching of literature aside, however, a greater concern is that this article is an example of another of the cultural battles that have plagued schools for a number of years now. In an effort to raise “multi-cultural awareness,” educators have been required to attend staff development training that both sensitizes them to differences represented by the various cultures at play in their schools and classrooms, but more problematically pushes them to include direct instruction on different cultural practices and beliefs. I think the sensitivity training is a useful reminder to educators that students come to us from all sorts of different backgrounds, and that we need to explicitly take steps to make them feel comfortable in our classrooms and schools.

However, asking teachers make the cultures of their students a subject of instruction, no matter how well intentioned, misses a key point about the role of schools. Schools are not arbiters of cultural judgment, and should not be asked to decide which cultures we should "teach." The job of school is to prepare students to succeed in the culture they will live in, not the one they came from.

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I had friends of Japanese ancestry who had to go to the Japanese school after the regular school day was over. That seemed a cruel and unusual punishment to me back then, but as an adult I can understand that their parents wanted to preserve their language as well as their culture and values. During the regular day, however, the job of those students, as well as the rest of us, was to learn how to succeed in American society, not immerse ourselves in any of the cultures we came from.

Now some would argue that American culture, or some part of it, is changing or needs to be changed. That, however, is part of the job description for educators. Rather it is a discussion that American society as a whole will engage in and eventually come to consensus about. Then it will fall to educators to prepare students to succeed in the culture as we agree it is.

Certainly educators ought to possess the good sense to be sensitive to the various backgrounds of every student in our classrooms. We need to strive to understand what cultural imperatives either impede or assist students and work to use that understanding (like using books with characters of color) to help each student get where they need to get: succeeding in the American culture. 

But it is not our job to teach the culture of one group of our kids to another group, nor is it absolutely necessary to count the numbers of different kinds and colors of characters in the works they read. Kids are resilient and adaptable, and occasionally we will find it interesting and enlightening to do a lesson on an interesting aspect of a particular culture (especially when it helps to understand a story we are reading), or choose a specific work to read because the particulars of the setting or the characters will increase the engagement of our students. We should never lose sight, however, of our main task.

Throughout our history, immigrants have come to America because they believed there was more opportunity for them here. For much of our history, that opportunity has been strengthened by the free, public, education we offer as a leg up to success in the American culture. Little has changed, and our classrooms still contain many students whose families are recent immigrants, explicitly here to share the American dream. That they become American along the way, is in large part a result of what they learn in school, and it is precisely why America is often described as a melting pot.

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