Dealing with Cultural Literacy
Since I began the blog, I’ve switched locations and employment. Currently, I’m situated in Houston, TX, working at YES Prep SW, a high-performing charter school. When I say high-performing, I mean it: our test scores are among the highest in the state, we send 100% of our students to four-year colleges, and the selectivity of the colleges our students is only increasing. I recently showed a quiz I was giving my students for Islam to a couple of friends of mine who have attended college and taken classes on Islam.
The quiz covered material they would have covered in their college classes in 3-4 weeks of class. I did it in four classes, with a bit of homework. My students did well. I can confidently say that I have great students and that they work hard. Our goal here at SW is to prepare our students not just to be college-eligible, but to be college-ready.
What does it mean to prepare a student for college? At our campus, we talk openly about college-readiness as our standard. Our students should be ready to academic handle the rigors of collegiate life, particularly since a large minority of our students will be attending selective or highly-selective universities. Equally important, however, is preparing them for the culture shock that many collegiate environments will be for them, particularly the further away they get from the city of Houston.
A couple of quick anecdotes will suffice: only 6 of my 125 students have seen any Star Wars movie. Only one had seen the Godfather. The concept of ‘philosophy’ is completely foreign to them. Even the game of baseball is a mystery to most them (taking my students to a baseball game is an experience I’ll be recounting another time).
These are not dumb students. Most of them are hard working, quick-witted and sharp. They are held to more rigorous standards that I and many of my fellow Yale alumni were held during high school. However, the gaps in certain cultural knowledge is extreme.
This matters. Knowledge of baseball, the Godfather and Star Wars may seem trivial, but they are symptoms of a much larger conundrum: the inability to gather the tokens of a privileged culture they will have to enter in college and in larger American life.
E.D. Hirsch first aired these concerns in a big way 1988 with his bestselling book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. In the updated edition, Hirsch discusses his central thesis:
A shared cultural literacy “enables grandparents to communicate with grandchildren, southerners with midwesterners, whites with blacks, Asians with Latinos, and Republicans with Democrats – no matter where they were educated. If each local school system imparts the traditional reference points of literate culture, then everybody is able to communicate with strangers. That is a good definition of literacy: the ability to communicate effectively with strangers. We help people in the underclass rise economically by teaching them how to communicate effectively beyond a narrow social sphere, and that can only be accomplished by teaching them shared, traditional literacy culture. We only make social and economic progress by teaching everybody to read and communicate, which means teaching myths and facts that are predominantly traditional.
Those who evade this inherent conservatism of literacy in the name of multicultural antielitism are in in effect elitists of an extreme sort. Traditionally educated themselves, and highly literate, these self-appointed protectors of minority cultures have advised schools to pursue a course that has condemned minorities to illiteracy. The disadvantaged students for whom antielitist solicitude is expressed are the very ones who suffer when we fail to introduce traditional literate culture into the earliest grades.
His pivot is important and it is one I recognize as vital to the project of educating students from environments that aren’t middle class or white, particularly as I educate them for a future where hopefully, because of their educational credentials, they have to engage and be a part of that world. Lisa Delpit, a personal hero of mine, writes about this challenge in Other People’s Children:
Progressive white teachers seem to say to their black students, “Let me help you find your voice. I promise not to criticize one note as you search for your own song.” But the black teachers say, ” I’ve heard your song loud and clear. Now, I want to teach you to harmonize with the rest of the world.”
Furthermore, Delpit goes on to describe the reality of the culture of power that myself and my students have to deal with with and what many minority parents see as the role of schooling and education:
There are codes or rules for participating in power; that tis, there is a “culture of power.” The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power. If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.
But parents who don’t function within that culture often want something else. They want to ensure that the school provides their children with discourse patterns, interreactional styles and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society.
It was the lack of attention to this concern that created such a negative outcry in the black community when well-intentioned white liberal educators introduced “dialect readers.” These were seen as a plot to prevent schools from teaching the linguistic aspects of the culturel of power, thus dooming black children to a permanent outsider caste. As one parent demanded, “My kids know how to be black – you all teach them how to be successful int he white man’s world.”
To quickly summarize before continuing: power exists. As an educator who is training students to enter a culture of power that is not theirs, I have to make it explicit and I have to teach the cultural literacy behind the institutions of power they’ll have to navigate. I cannot, in good conscience, pretend that their cultural experiences will be valued for all that they are worth and that they won’t be judged for not having those markers of cultural knowledge. I forced myself to read the ‘classics’ of Western Civilization before attending school, but I constantly felt that the philosophers and ideas that were being dropped on a regular basis completely baffled me. I still can’t exactly tell the difference between the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other famous rock bands, though I at least know a phrase or two from popular songs.
That’s not the totality of my challenge, however. The difficulty arises that I have to convince them, amidst all of this, that their cultural experiences are legitimate. Their love of Tejano music or their knowledge of the urban, ethnically diverse and youthful language that pervades their culture is important and it is a travesty of reality that their experiences are not considered part of the mainstream language of cultural literacy. I need to make them not feel ashamed of their culture as I did many times as an undergraduate: how many times did I instinctively lower the volume on my Tejano music? Too many.
Furthermore, the point is to arm them for a future where they can create a fundamentally more fair world. In a bit of practical philosophy, you need the Master’s tools to dismantle the gate. You can’t simply slam into it repeatedly. Many of my posts from now on will focus on this tension.
It’s a challenge, but one I feel I’m surprisingly well-equipped to handle. I’ve grown up in communities where the contextual clues of power are completely lacking, but I learned first-hand what power differentials do. I moved to a university environment where I both had to negotiate the rules of power, but just as important, work to change them and make them more accepting. Yes, it is hard work. In many ways it’s unfair.
My students will succeed, they will be ‘cultured’ and gosh darnit, they’ll prove some people wrong.
Reading: Lisa Delpit’s explosive article in the Harvard Educational Review: http://faculty.washington.edu/rikitiki/tcxg464sp08/Silenced%20Dialogue%20by%20L%20Delpit.pdf