MY COLLEAGUE BILL RASPberry was born black and raised in a small Mississippi town. I was born white and raised in New York City. Raspberry's office is next to mine, and so sometimes (when he is not smoking a cigar) I visit him or (when he is not smoking a cigar) he visits me. The most recent time he did so, the following phrase recurred: "I don't get it." We were talking about a suggestion to improve the academic performance of black males by having "a less Eurocentric curriculum." Neither of us got it.
We swapped stories of our own school days and wondered why, suddenly, it is necessary to bond ethnically or racially with the school curriculum. Raspberry said he didn't when he was in school and I know I didn't when I was in school, and I read -- as I suspect Bill did -- several grades above my age.
The suggestion that provoked me was part of a blue-ribbon panel's report on the Prince George's County school system. It focused on black, male students, who, as a group, are performing poorly. This, of course, is not news either in Prince George's or anywhere else. For some reason -- or for a lot of known reasons -- the black male is more likely to be numero uno in almost every awful category you can name -- everything from murderer to murder victim. As a group, black males are in peril.
In the Prince George's schools, black males make up about one third of the student population but account for 59 percent of all suspensions and 40 percent of dropouts. As a group, they have a grade point average just over D. If some of the proposals to improve the academic performance of black males smack of desperation, you can understand why: The situation is desperate.
But still, I wonder if making the curriculum "less Eurocentric" will make the situation better, and, frankly, I was relieved to learn that others share my doubts. In both New York and California (and probably other places as well), similar proposals have been offered, and in both places the critics have been black as well as white. In New York, one of them is Kenneth Clark, the eminent black psychologist whose studies helped convince the Supreme Court that school segregation was unconstitutional.
My own authority or, really, reservation is basically anecdotal but not, I think, irrelevant. When Raspberry and I swapped stories, we talked about a school curriculum that, in racial or ethnic terms, was hardly one we could identify with. For Raspberry it was all white, and for me it was Christian and, to a large degree, rural. Of the books I was required to read, of the historical figures I studied, not a one in any way directly related to my life.
For instance, I remember reading Giants in the Earth by O.E. Roelvaag, a book about Scandinavian sodbusters on the Great Plains. I suppose the book could be called "Eurocentric," and I, as the descendant of Europeans, should have identified. But those Plains folk might as well have been Asians or Africans -- that's how different their lives were from mine. Not once, in an entire book, did anyone ask for an egg cream.
The same could be said about almost all the books I was told to read. They were almost always about people who were not anything like me and, I thought, might not have liked people like me. This was certainly true of Shakespeare, who wrote in an England devoid of Jews and who seems to have shared the antisemitic attitude of his times. Could I identify with either him or his characters?
Of course I could. "Hamlet," after all, is not a play about a Dane or a prince or a white man but about a person. The same, incidentally, is true for the characters in Invisible Man, who are black, or those in The Good Earth, who are Chinese, or the English butler in The Remains of the Day, a recent work by an English writer of Japanese origin, Kazuo Ishiguro.
As a writer and as a reader, I recoil from the notion that there are ethnic or racial barriers to the imagination. But even more than that, I lament the urge to segment the culture, to say this is for blacks and this is for whites, this for Christians and this for Jews. This is not to say that certain books, certain historic figures do not have ethnic or racial appeal and that they cannot usefully be employed in a school curriculum. It is only to say that there exists something called the larger culture, and it is the one we all have in common. This culture is inescapably, but not exclusively, Eurocentric.
Whatever the virtue of tailoring a curriculum to an ethnic group (and there is some), such changes will almost certainly not improve the academic performance of black males. If learning about role models in either history or literature courses were required for success, no black would now be successful, certainly not one of an older generation, and neither, for that matter, would any Asian American. Neither in the curriculum nor in popular culture (TV, movies) are there Asian role models. Yet, as a group, Asian Americans are sterling academic performers.
Something ails the American black male -- a "something" we understand and can enumerate (poverty, etc.) and a "something" that eludes our understanding. But changing the curriculum in school districts where blacks predominate would tend only to put these students further outside the mainstream. They would know what others do not, which is all right. But they would not know what most others do -- and that's been the problem in the first place.