Monday, January 21, 2008

The perils of multiculturalism in schools

The National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth concluded that not even one study showed that culture-based education improved achievement in reading and writing. Some, in an article about this in the January 8th issue of Education Week, say the lack of evidence is due to the inherent difficulty of measuring when the student’s culture has been properly integrated and the limits of standardized tests. Only one study has ever shown math increases. It was performed on Yup’ik second graders in consultation with the tribal elders. But this study’s uncorroborated results are strange in light of the lack of evidence that language achievement is enhanced; you would think language would be more sensitive to culture-based education than math. Furthermore one would have to ask if isolated Alaskan communities have the same dynamics of urban youth. Even without any evidence, California and Florida mandate teachers training in multicultural understanding. One researcher said nonchalantly, “If . . . there’s no evidence it does harm, then let them do it.”

The problem is that cultural-based multicultural education is not only about achievement. It is political. Much of the reasoning (the word “research” does not apply) in this area goes as follows: The theorists note that there is an achievement gap. As groups, Asians and whites do better than Hispanics and blacks in all areas of academics. They then correctly note that this cannot be due to racial differences. The significant fraction of Hispanic and black students who do excel disproves that race is important. But whereas culturists would now suggest that culture is important, these researchers do not take culture seriously. Culturists note that some cultures do more homework and are more gung ho about education. Culture-based education proponents hold to the multicultural view that all cultures are to be celebrated and do not account for much more than food, fiestas and fashion. And once they exclude racial ability and cultural diversity as explanations, they assert that the achievement gap results from systematic institutional racism.

We then go off the deep end of education theory. We look for obvious signs of racism in the system and do not find them; laws specifically prohibit this. We then have to look for subtle racism to find the source of the achievement gap. Ultimately, these multicultural educators conclude, it is not individual acts, but the fact that the entire system uses “white” culture to teach that alienates the youth of color. For example, if “white” English is the standard by which proficiency is to be judged minority students are viewed as deficient. Their self-esteem goes down. This is the basis of “whiteness” studies. Being aware about how Standard English "privileges" "white culture" is said to be crucial to equalizing power relations. Books such as the widely popular, “the Skin That We Speak” do correct our tendency to only see non-standard cultural styles in terms of deficits. But the assumption that white culture equals racist oppression that social justice requires challenging, teaches a dangerous lesson.

If culture-based education is measured by its ability to help children learn, the evidence is inconclusive to negative. But when cultural-based education is promoted as a way to challenge "privilege" and bring "social justice" it becomes destructive. It teaches children that society is unfair. It undermines individual responsibility. When it teaches minority victimization it primes entire groups of people to be angry and that their cultural habits should have no impact. It calls failure noble as it is justifiable "resistance." It contributes to the commonly noted complaint from black students that doing homework is “acting white.” To the extent that it labels confrontation a cultural mode of expression it undermines addressing discipline problems for fear of being called racist. When it emphasizes Ebonics, culture-based education causes the school to fail to teach the skills needed to get ahead. Whether right or wrong, American – not to mention Chinese and European – businessmen do not respect reports written in Ebonics. It is certainly not the case that no negative consequences can come from culture-based education.

The worst result of multicultural, culture-based education is that when we teach all cultures are inherently equal – sans the oppressive “whiteness” – we cut youth off from inspiration. This multicultural notion fails to distinguish the unique moral contributions of the West. For studying the Aztecs to give you pride, you would have to embrace human sacrifice and endless war for victims. Contrary to popular belief,in terms of percent dead, the prior century was the most peaceful in the history of the world. We are the culture that came up with freedom of speech, separation of church and state, democracy, due process and the idea of fighting irrational discrimination. Non-Western nations do not embrace these concepts. Western culture has invented nearly every modern convenience the students enjoy. When we fail to teach the inspirational achievements of Western culture, contributing to society loses its nobility. No one wants to contribute to an oppressive racist white society. All of our students, regardless of background, should be proud to contribute, know they have a duty to contribute, to the Western project of rational self-governance.

Ultimately, however, student achievement is not the only issue at stake. If our students fail to achieve, our economy can flounder. If our schools fail to create a connection between our students, balkanization can emerge. Poverty, balkanization and a culture of blame are dangerous for society. No cultures are more concerned with fairness and equal opportunity than Western ones. If the West falls behind or falls completely, we may be forced to find out just how culturally barbaric and insensitive life can be in the school of hard knocks.
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