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Trans-National America

Going to School: The African-American Experience

edited by Kofi Lomotey
State University of New York Press, 242 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America

by Richard D. Alba
Yale University Press, 374 pp., $35.00

A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities

New York State Department of Education, 76 pp.

From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America

National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, Boston College, 59 pp., $6.00 (paper)

Campus Ethnoviolence and the Policy Options

by Howard J. Ehrlich
National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, 72 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture

by Lawrence H. Fuchs
Wesleyan University Press, 640 pp., $45.00

Each year, this country becomes less white, less “European,” and less tightly bound by a single language. The United States now has a greater variety of cultures than at any time in its history. This has resulted largely from the recent rise in immigration, for the most part from Latin America and Asia, but also from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In addition, some Americans who were born in the United States are saying they can no longer identify with its prevailing culture.

One reaction has been to call for the recognition of heritages outside the Western world. Much of the debate has centered on classrooms and campuses, and particularly on curriculum and the composition of their faculties. However, it has also affected legislation, employment, and public policy. As with all such issues, advocates often claim they represent ignored and inarticulate constituencies.

1.

Last year, the commissioner of education for New York State released a report entitled “A Curriculum of Inclusion,” and designed to address the changing ethnic composition in the public schools. The document was prepared by a “task force” most of whose members were minorities. It gave scant attention to reading, mathematics, or scientific skills, but instead advanced the view that minority pupils have “been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression,” owing to the “Euro-American monocultural perspective” that dominates the current curriculum. This insensitivity, it asserted, has had a “terribly damaging effect on the psyches of young people” whose native “cultures are alienated and devalued.”

It is easy to question epithets like “monocultural” and “educational oppression.” One need only reply that Europe is a large and varied continent, stretching from Inverness to Istanbul, just as the “Euro-American” emigration ran from Spitsbergen to Salonika. Even so, it is not difficult to argue that Europe and many of its emigrants shared a common culture, tradition, and civilization. Moreover, this country’s schools have reflected the literary and scientific side of that tradition, which came with the first English settlers and has essentially endured.

Indeed, when immigrants arrived from rural Ireland and Sicily, the schools felt no obligation to adapt to their customs. Nor did educators devise special curriculums when they set up separate schools for liberated slaves or the country’s indigenous inhabitants. The schools were to act as the proverbial melting pot, which meant that the society was to be accepted as shaped by those who preceded. Few thought to ask whether this might have, as the New York report now claims, “a terribly damaging effect on the psyche of young people,” whose cultures were “distorted, marginalized, or omitted.” Still, the United States cannot be accused of false labeling so far as immigrants were concerned; they came here voluntarily, willing to abide by the rules.

Ours is much more an age of psychology and social science, of professional compassion and expressly ethnic politics. We also have a minor industry of writers eager to tell of injuries they suffered from having to conform to the dominant culture. Along with the strains of the loss of language and tradition have been strains between generations. But then the promise of America has been to offer the chance to make it on one’s own, which often involves loosening older ties. This erosion, some have argued, explains much of the aimlessness and self-indulgence so common in this country.

The New York report proposes to expand the school curriculum to give major attention to cultures outside Europe. In particular, pupils throughout the state are to learn much more about the customs and contributions of blacks and Hispanics, as well as Asians and American Indians. Nor will short summaries suffice. The report reminds us that Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Cubans differ in important ways, just as Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos should not be seen as a single category. One section insists that “curricular materials must be developed so there is equity in the coverage of‌Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras.”

At the same time, it is not made clear how the self-esteem of youngsters from, say, Trinidad and Haiti would be enhanced by being taught about life in Korea and the Philippines. Some schools in New York now have pupils from twenty different countries. If all applicable cultures were to be covered, each could not get more than several minutes in a busy syllabus.

A reply to the report has come from a group of historians, organized by the education expert Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., alarmed that an official document “contemptuously dismisses the Western tradition”:

The Western tradition is the source of ideas of individual freedom and political democracy to which most of the world now aspires. The West has committed its share of crimes against humanity, but the Western democratic philosophy also contains in its essence the means of exposing crimes and producing reforms. This philosophy has included and empowered people of all nations and races. Little can be more dangerous to the psyches of young blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Indians than for the State of New York to tell them that the Western democratic tradition is not for them.1

This answer deserves respectful attention. It expresses the views of twenty-eight distinguished scholars, most of them liberal and all but two of them white. Their letter asks for more historical attention to immigrants and minorities, and many of them have done well-regarded work in these fields. However, the statement does not address the political issues and emotions underlying the dispute.

Jim Sleeper articulates much of the controversy in his well-argued The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York. He could be speaking of the Ravitch-Schlesinger statement when he remarks that he finds it “astonishing that whites who make so much of the importance of cultural moorings can reject the anger of blacks’ awakening to their own history of cultural devastation and of their heroic efforts to surmount it.” The authors of the New York State report, he writes, do not want the diverse heritages subjected to the analytical study advanced by professional historians. Rather, they want stories saluting the achievements of their people, accompanied by indictments of the Western record of slavery, colonization, and the destruction of native populations.

At issue here are different approaches to culture. The approach favored by the Ravitch-Schlesinger group emphasizes the books and ideas of scholarship, particularly historical scholarship, which may show the failure of Western culture and its leaders as well as its successes. They hope to introduce students to traditions and principles that might be instructive for any group seeking to claim its rights. The blacks and other minorities who endorse the New York report want to see the curriculum include positive accounts of the customs and conventions linked to their ancestral origins. The Onondaga Indians may not have produced writers comparable to Shakespeare, or the Kikuyu a philosopher comparable to Montesquieu, but their advocates are confident that they had art, values, and visions of life worth studying. What is not clear in such demands are the larger conceptions of the skills and general knowledge that students are meant to acquire through studies of these traditions. Presumably the reformers want students to emerge from school with more than a repertory of different ethnic understandings; but just what they hope for, apart from general pride in their ethnic backgrounds, is not spelled out.

2.

Going to School: The African-American Experience, a volume of essays by black educators, begins by acknowledging the gaps in scholastic achievement between blacks and other groups. Hence the need, the editor says in a preface, to “create an environment where African-Americans will be able to compete academically in America’s public schools.” The contributors take the view that “if students do not feel good about themselves, they will not do well,” adding that pupils “do better academically when they see themselves in the curriculum.”

Going to School differs from the New York State report in an important respect. Most of its contributors start with the premise that black students should be taught by black teachers in all-black public schools. Far from advocating a “multicultural” syllabus, it seeks a single program, attuned to “African-American cultural values.” In other words, it calls for black self-segregation, under the auspices and with the financing of the public school system.

Booker Peek, an Oberlin professor, begins his essay by distinguishing between “skills education” and “political education.” The former covers conventional disciplines, from basic reading and writing to programs preparing for professions. To Professor Peek, this kind of study “is no big deal‌. Skills education is simply a tool that can be picked up or discarded as you may wish.” As he sees it, political education should be given more importance, since its purpose is to instill racial pride, stressing the accomplishments of African culture and the achievements of black Americans. “Political education has to be a total quest for liberation,” he concludes. “Political education is something that white society can’t give Black Americans.”

Many educators would probably reply that “political education” in this sense has no place in the public schools. They fear that ideology may impede objective analysis, and rhetoric supplant thought. But Janice Hale-Benson of Cleveland State University says in Going to School that ideology and rhetoric are already in the curriculum, although whites seldom see this. America’s public schools, she writes, “were designed for white children,” even if the word “white” is never used. She and the other contributors to Going to School believe that black and white Americans have distinctive cultures with relatively little common ground. Education for black children must strengthen their separate world and make them feel good about having this heritage.

The issue of “self-esteem” has played a central role in the multicultural controversy. The state of California has gone so far as to set up a “Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem” to examine the problem and recommend remedies. Who can object to people exploring their collective past and thinking well of themselves, so long as it does not take obsessive forms? The question for educators is how much attention the school curriculum should give to instructing young people in the sources of their identities in their ethnic and cultural ties. The contributors to Going to School, it turns out, are only concerned with the problems of blacks, whose sense of self-esteem has in the authors’ view been so threatened by white persecution, racism, and condescension that their education must stress pride in a distinctive African-American culture. There seems no doubt, moreover, that a segregated curriculum emphasizing what Professor Peek called “political education” can rouse youthful spirits. Academies organized by the Black Muslims have shown that this can be done.

The question is whether those who advocate a segregated curriculum are also concerned about, and capable of imparting, the technical skills required for modern employment. Professor Peek’s remark, quoted earlier, implying that preparation in science and mathematics “is no big deal” suggests that, at least for some, transmitting such skills is not a predominant concern. Other black educators may agree with the contributors to Going to School on the need for black cultural studies while also insisting that academic skills must be mastered.

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    Newsday, June 29, 1990.

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