Friday, October 28, 2005

Social Justice, Cultural Competence, etc.

Lisa Delpit, in her essay The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, outlined what she considered to be a "culture of power". She asserted that there is a (white middle-class) culture that permeates schools, and that students from other backgrounds are often unable to function in the school environment because they do not know the rules. By way of clarification I'll offer my favorite excerpt from her essay:

Other researchers have identified differences in middle class and working-class speech to children. Snow and others, for example, report that working-class mothers use more directives to their children than do middle- and upper-class parents. Middle-class parents are likely to give the directive to a child to take his bath as, "Isn't it time for your bath?" Even though the utterance is couched as a question, both child and adult understand it as a directive. The child may respond with "Aw, Mom, can't I wait until...," but whether or not negotiation is attempted, both conversants understand the intent of the utterance.

By contrast, a black mother, in whose house I was recently a guest, said to her eight-year-old son, "Boy, get your rusty behind in that bathtub." Now, I happen to know that this woman loves her son as much as any mother, but she would never have posed the directive to her son to take a bath in the form of a question. Were she to ask, "Would you like to take your bath now?" she would not have been issuing a directive but offering a true alternative. Consequently, as Heath suggests, upon entering school the child from such a family may not understand the indirect statement of the teacher as a direct command. Both white and black working-class children in the communities Heath studied "had difficulty interpreting these indirect requests for adherence to an unstated set of rules."

I agree that children may come to school from homes that do not possess or practice the "culture of power". However, I don't accept Delpit's description. Perhaps a more accurate description would be the "culture of school," which would include such things as raising your had before blurting something out in class, demonstrating politeness and tolerance of others, and showing respect for authority (no matter the race, color, size, religion or whatever of the authority figure). Are we to believe that students cannot adjust, in a very short time, to one set of requirements at home and perhaps a different set of requirements at school? Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may, by definition, start out at a disadvantage in school, but to accept this line of reasoning and to extend it beyond the first few weeks of school seems more than a little paternalistic to me. Children adjust to different rules all the time (dad's house vs. mom's house, home vs. the mall, home manners vs. restaurant manners); to use the "culture of power" as even one of many excuses for poor performance of racial minorites, as Delpit does, is to succumb to what President Bush described as the "soft bigotry of low expectations." We need to quit paying lip service to such students--if you truly believe that all students can be reached, set high standards for them and actually expect them to reach those standards. Don't give them excuses.

Delpit and I disagree on what to do. I say, if you think there is a "culture of power", teach the children it's accouterments. Teach them its nuances, it style of speech, its way of organizing society. In other words, if there's power out there, teach them how to get it! Delpit opts for the "woe is me, I'm a victim, hear me whine" approach.

Now you may have inferred that I believe that because there is a culture of power, everyone should learn the codes to participate in it, and that is how the world should be. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe in a diversity of style, and I believe the world would be diminished if cultural diversity is ever obliterated....
I further believe that to act as if power does not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same. To imply to children or adults (but of course the adults won't believe you anyway) that it doesn't matter how you talk or how you write is to ensure their ultimate failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. I tell them that their language and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play.
But don't think that I let the onus of change rest entirely with the students.

Seems to me that Delpit believes that a student's own "culture", for lack of a better term, is superior to the "culture of power", which would most likely be the dominant societal culture in which that child lives! In other words, the child should learn a few rules so that he or she can participate in that culture, but that doing so should be treated as a game to be played. I don't understand how Delpit can logically demand that society change to accomodate those from outside it, while at the same time saying that those outsiders should treat their surrounding society's culture as anything more than a game to be played, a hindrance. Such views seem to be the norm when people try to speak for the underrepresented, and such a belief structure belies not a desire for acceptance, but a desire for dominance--I believe that Delpit would, if she could, reverse the roles of the underrepresented and the dominant cultures, and would have no difficulty explaining why the new dominant culture should stay where it is and the new subordinate (white middle-class) culture should adapt to it. These belief structures are very self-serving and are based on emotion, not logic.

Again, I argue that teaching disadvantaged students, giving them some "cultural capital" to spend, is to open the doors to success in society. Others argue, however, that "cultural competence" is not the perview of the student but rather is the responsibility of the teacher; the teacher should adapt, accomodate, respect, and nourish the culture of each child, whatever that culture may be, instead of teaching them the tools they'll need to function in the larger society. In other words, the social engineers want to create a "society" in the schools that is entirely different from the one in which we live. This accepting of other cultures seems to be a one-way street, and only the dominant culture needs to do the accepting. While there is good reason to merge the two beliefs and find some meeting between them, it's not a happy medium--we need to teach the children to function in the society we have much more than in the Utopia we want.

Wendy McElroy writes the following about the new "cultural competence" requirement some schools have for prospective teachers:

In practice, the term is the new face of political correctness, which is often accompanied by the PC concepts of "diversity" or "multiculturalism."

"Cultural competency" advances the same basic goals as those buzz words. Certain groups (such as minorities) and certain ideas (such as gender feminist interpretations of oppression) are to be promoted by institutionalizing policies that encourage them. Of course, this means that other groups and other ideas are de facto penalized or discouraged.

Her article continues:

Norman Levitt, Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University, explains, "'Cultural competence' is…a bureaucratic weapon. 'Cultural competence,' or rather, your [an educator's] presumed lack thereof, is what you will be clobbered with if you are imprudent enough to challenge or merely to have qualms about 'affirmative action', 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism,' as those principles are now espoused by their most fervent academic advocates."

According to Levitt, the beliefs that are likely to torpedo an educator's career include:

-- affirmative action conflicts "with other standards of justice and equity."

-- feminism's theory of "the social constructedness of gender" is incorrect.

So now we're back to social justice. For those on the left, it always comes back to this concept of social justice. Just to review, my post from earlier this month on the topic of social justice included this quote:

By the way, there's a huge difference between "justice" (government acts to ensure equal treatment before the law) and "social justice" (government acts to redistribute resources to those it feels are more deserving—and more likely to vote for said government).

While obviously not perfect, we've come a long way in this country towards the definition given above for "justice". The eulogies on the recent passing of Rosa Parks demonstrate how far we've come in only 50 years. I fear, though, those who would use the power of government to reengineer society to satisfy those it determines are "more deserving".

There are times when the power of government can be used to reorder a society, but I doubt this is what our leftie friends have in mind:

It is also time to step up lecturing both the American people and the Iraqis on exactly what we are doing in the Sunni Triangle. We have been sleepwalking through the greatest revolutionary movement in the history of the Middle East, as the U.S. military is quietly empowering the once-despised Kurds and Shiites — and along with them women and the other formerly dispossessed of Iraq. In short, the U.S. Marine Corps has done more for global freedom and social justice in two years than has every U.N. peacekeeping mission since the inception of that now-corrupt organization. (bold type mine--Darren)

Let's not forget the US Army's role in that process! But back to the point. There are a few ways of changing society. Court rulings are one way--the civil rights era gives us one example of this. Revolutions or other armed events, like the one discussed above, are another. Logic, advertising, and persuasion--a good PR campaign--is another. But trying to exclude certain people (like conservatives, for instance) from certain career fields so that you can brainwash children to your own way of thinking--that's not only intellectually dishonest, it's morally bankrupt.

Update, 3/13/06: here's an updated link with Delpit's essay, which is getting harder to find on the internet.


Anonymous said...

I had to read a bunch of Delpit in grad (Ed.) school in a class on "multiculturalism," and it was much the same nonsense. And I challenged much of it in the same way you did. I can just imagine, too, if a white teacher "instructed" a black student to go to the board to do, say, a math problem thusly: "Get your rusty behind up there and do that problem!" To Delpit, that supposedly would be "culturally sensitive;" however, much more likely, the teacher would be accused by the parents and the administration of being "INsensitive" and even racist. Most would agree that such a comment in a class would be inappropriate. Heck, in a real (similar) anecdote, in my first year of teaching (quite a ways back) I was castigated by a [black] administrator for the wording on my discipline referral about a [black] student. On it I wrote, "Would not shut up after numerous requests." The admin. told me I needed to choose my words "correctly," that "shut up" was inappropriate in directing proper student behavior, and that the student would not learn from the incident if I used terms such as that. This seems to contradict the "directness" that Delpit favors, but in the real classroom environment it just doesn't cut it. And, I did see the admin.'s point -- to a degree. I probably shouldn't have written the referral as I did, even if I did use "shut up" to the student. I certainly don't believe it inappropriate to say such if a student absolutely refuses (as my student did) to be quiet after repeated {calm, polite) requests.

And your statement, Again, I argue that teaching disadvantaged students, giving them some "cultural capital" to spend, is to open the doors to success in society, is dead-on correct. Delpit's ivory tower theorizing only serves to further impoverish the children she supposedly seeks to "liberate." But y'know what? She sure feels good about herself 'cause she "empathizes" with these children. She "cares."

Yeah, right.

Darren said...

Cannot disagree with anything you said.

Why is it that "shut up" is considered up there with foul language and racial epithets?