Saturday, June 12, 2010

IDENTITY POLITICS AND PUBLIC EDUCATION

In the early 70s, English professors at The University of Michigan wanted it to allow “black English” as an acceptable form of academic communication. Invited to help develop the proposal, I deplored the idea. I said that blacks allowed to use “black English” would be encouraged to deny themselves the full benefits of effectively communicating in Standard English. I added that the proposal would be racially discriminatory, in effect, if not intent. The proposal went nowhere. Years later, a “black English” advocate and mentor to the department’s first black female assistant professor vigorously opposed her request for tenure and promotion, to the dismay of those who thought her well qualified though quirky.

In the mid 80s, the federal government required that school districts provide dual-language instruction for all non-English speakers in all subjects. With such students collectively speaking about 125 languages, Fairfax County Public Schools requested and received a waiver from this inane requirement.

In the mid 90s, the Oakland, California, school board accepted “Ebonics” (“black English” renamed by blending “ebony” and “phonics”) for use in its schools, purportedly to help black students become versed in Standard English. English professors rallied to the cause, again, more on political than pedagogical grounds. The federal government denied funding to Ebonics-based programs because it lacked educational merit.

Dual-language instruction for non-English-speaking students raises similar issues. School districts with large numbers of Spanish-only-speaking students have long used dual-language programs for academic instruction. Whether such programs are successes or failures remains debatable; whether benefits justify costs remains dubious. But the existence of constituencies supporting, and supported by, them is indubitable. Financial benefits accrue to education bureaucrats and dual-language teachers who protect such programs to protect their jobs. Political benefits accrue to elected state officials who tout these programs, use taxes to pay for them, and play ethnic politics—all to win support from ethnic constituencies. Ultimately, no one knows—and many do not want to know—whether such programs are helpful or harmful. The concern is that non-English-speaking students take separate, thus unequal, thus inferior, courses in their first years in school, with persistent educational deficiencies thereafter. An unintended consequence may be keeping minorities down or back, or in their place.

By contrast, earlier immigrants acquired literacy in English by a simple, no-cost, a-political way: immersion. From 1870 through 1920, millions of illiterate Europeans immigrated to the United States. Although grandparents and parents often continued to speak their native tongues, children went to public schools taught in English, learned English from other students, and received an education. Of course, they struggled, but they learned English in a short time and everything else in due time. They did not have to surrender their native language, culture, or identity, though many chose to abandon it or to reserve it for their private lives and relinquish it in their career or college.

This history of English language acquisition by non-native speakers shows that the process of educational conformity inside schools did not enforce cultural conformity or enfeeble ethnic identification outside them. Immigrants faced the choice whether, and if, in what ways or to what degree, to assimilate. Obviously, many chose to assimilate, but many did not. Nothing in this history is new in America; every ethnic group struggles with cohesion and identity; most survive, some better than others.

On the analogy that the Constitution precludes an establishment of religion, the government should eschew any effort to enhance ethnicity, or enrich or empower ethnic groups or group members. It simply has no proper role in educating groups of people in accordance with their ethnic, cultural, or linguistic background.

There are three practical reasons for opposing identity-oriented instruction in populations with large numbers of non-white, non-English-speaking students. One, democracy works best when everyone shares a common cultural grounding in language, just as its economy works best when it shares a common currency. The country does not need enclaves increasingly alienated from one another. A shared American culture does not deny or denigrate sub-cultures; instead, it works to create personal respect, and to preserve political comity, among ethnically diverse peoples.

Two, identity-oriented programs in public education not only do not work, but also damage those whom they purport to educate. Evidence does not establish that programs tailored to specific cultural or linguistic communities improve school attendance or academic performance over the long run. On the contrary, they distract students from the education which can enable them to become highly functional within the larger society. Moreover, such programs, invariably involving segregation within schools, become patronizing and discriminatory, with a variety of predictably unsavory results.

And three, identity-oriented education is antithetical in spirit to the most important aspect of education. The etymology of “education” offers a hint; it traces to “educere,” or “to lead out.” Identity-oriented education encourages students to focus on what they are born to, not on what they might become as well. Public education should attempt nothing to help or hinder students from developing their ethnic identities as they choose. It should attempt an education to encourage and enable all students to become productive participants in, and contributing members to, the larger society. To this end, it must ensure both quality and equality in education for the good of all.

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