If you have the feeling that you're the only one who doesn't understand the philosophical flap over "culture" and education in America, move over. There are two of us.
I have heard the contention that the reason American education serves black and Hispanic youngsters so poorly is that school is hopelessly Eurocentric. The need is either for multiculturalism (if the prescriber is politically moderate and integrationist) or Afrocentricism (the view of the self-consciously black and radical).
I have seen scholarly tracts claiming that minority children can't learn because their textbooks, their schools -- the entire culture -- ignore their Hispanic or African heritage, making it impossible for them to develop the self-esteem necessary for learning. I have read the academics who insist that the problem is that schools take too little account of African (or Hispanic) learning styles.
And I confess I don't understand any of it.
Mind you, I am not talking about such efforts as Carter G. Woodson's "Negro History Week" (or its present incarnation as Black History Month) calculated to make up for the exclusion from official texts of the contributions of nonwhites and to bring home to black children that their color (and the American bias against it) is no insuperable bar to achievement.
I understand that well enough.
I understand, too, a child is unlikely to do well in school if he believes his teacher doubts his ability to learn, or is contemptuous of his group, and I understand that the attitudes some children learn at home (for instance that school is lower priority than, say, contributing to the family finances) militate against academic success.
What I don't understand is the notion that the reason these youngsters suffer is that their Africa- or Central-America-based "culture" is being denigrated in favor of Eurocentric imperatives and that the cure lies in resurrecting their lost culture.
Take the question of "learning styles." Is there some peculiarly African approach to assimilating information that puts black children at a disadvantage in American schools? Janice Hale-Benson of Cleveland State University posits an African style of learning that is "relational" -- that features approximation, contextual meaning and a focus on people, in contrast to a European style that is analytic, emphasizes precision and focuses on things.
I don't doubt that the two styles exist, but I'd guess they are about as likely to explain boy-girl differences -- or social class differences -- as black-white ones. In any case, a good teacher will try different approaches to put a lesson across.
Diane Buck Briscoe, who with Catherine Gurba has produced a resource book for adult-education teachers in Florida, takes the practical approach that teachers should learn to interpret and understand the divergent behavior of students without negatively stereotyping them. Thus, if some youngsters learn better in groups than as individualistic competitors, the teacher ought to consider experimenting with cooperative learning. If some students respond more to family values, then efforts might be made to involve parents.
This makes sense, no matter the color of the children or their teachers. No sensitive or intelligent teacher will denigrate what a child already knows -- whether that prior knowledge involves comparison shopping, an ear for harmony and rhythm or the ability to cope with life on the mean streets of the inner city. Smart teachers not only understand the necessity of building on what a child has already learned but also learn to identify the impediments to learning that may be a part of the child's home environment.
For instance, Briscoe and Gurba note that a teacher raised to believe in the overriding importance of education may question the commitment of a Puerto Rican student who is frequently absent from class. "However, education is subordinate to family duties in the culture of Puerto Ricans, and the learner may not be behaving in a culturally irresponsible manner by missing school to attend to family obligations. Indeed the learner may even forsake education entirely and drop out of school in order to work and supplement family income."
If that is just another way of saying different children come to school with different attitudes and expectations, I can understand it.
What I don't understand is the contention that the differences are ethnically based: that there is some peculiarly European or African or Asian way of processing information, and schools have an obligation to reacquaint students with their cultural styles.