March 01, 1995 4 min read
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OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN: White Teachers, Students of Color, and Other Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom, by Lisa Delpit. (The New Press, $23.)

Of these recently published books examining the role of multicultural education in the fight against racism, two fervently argue that teachers will continue to discriminate, unwittingly or not, against children of color unless they are made aware of the cultural differences that shape their learning styles. But the first, Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue, takes a sharply critical view of that notion, arguing that multicultural zealots, desperately wanting to affirm minority cultures, actually isolate the very children they most want to help.

Bernstein acknowledges that racism yet flourishes, but he sees it as an evil that must be attacked with the ordinary but elusive virtues of courage and compassion. The new multiculturalism, he suggests, relies less upon a moral compass than upon an enlightened elite who attack the racist virus with steady doses of diversity. One goal of this pining insistence on diversity is to help teachers and students surrender an unconscious addiction to Eurocentrism, the festering canker of so much bigotry and grief.

The major problem, as Bernstein sees it, is that the multiculturalists increasingly operate on the assumption that people are but “products of their racial and sexual identity.’' By relentlessly attacking the traditional American notion that individuals can transcend the circumstances of birth, the multiculturalists, Bernstein insists, preach a new sort of ethnic destiny. This, in turn, fosters a separatism that is particularly damaging to disenfranchised minorities, who are steered away from the mainstream culture of their “victimizers.’' While people of color are being told to celebrate diversity, privileged white kids are methodically being prepared for power.
On some points, Bernstein could stand a good challenge--he minimizes, for instance, the devastating consequences of white racism--but unfortunately Rethinking Schools, a collection of interviews and essays from a Milwaukee reform journal of the same name, is not up to the task. Embodied here is the very extremism Bernstein attacks. One contributor, a consultant in anti-racist education, reflects the prevailing “you’re with us or against us’’ attitude by insisting that those who don’t take multicultural education seriously are “promoting a monocultural or racist education.’'

The contributors, several of whom are teachers, attack right-wing indoctrination, yet don’t hesitate to propagandize to their own students. Sometimes this takes the form of almost comic condescension, as when one teacher responds to a homophobic slur not with a reprimand--this would be too judgmental--but by explaining that “a faggot, literally, is a stick used for kindling.’' Another teacher begins a lesson on Columbus by stealing a student’s purse and saying, “It’s mine; I discovered it.’' As the lesson proceeds, the teacher frames his remarks so that students invariably see Columbus as a racist scoundrel. Whether true or not, such a heavy-handed approach is unlikely to catalyze the critical thinking he and others so eagerly promote.

Blatant as this propagandizing may be, even worse is another practice described in the book in which children are encouraged by their teachers to share writings about sexual harassment, homophobia, parental drug use, neighborhood crack houses, and so on. Strangely, there is no discussion of pets, new friends, or ball games, the assumption perhaps being that ordinary happiness is trivial or beyond reach. In any case, the prompting here is as disturbing as it is transparent, for in being urged to recount such painful personal details, these students are essentially learning that their lives are delineated by social problems. An enhanced “victim status,’' rather than a new self-awareness, is the likely result.

Also discouraging is the sometimes whining “we know best’’ attitude that permeates the book. In one essay, for example, the author claims that attacks on New York City’s ill-fated “Children of the Rainbow’’ curriculum “reflect the discomfort historically privileged groups feel in the face of demands for inclusion and more democratic versions of the curriculum.’' But, in fact, those most vocal in their opposition to the curriculum were poor minorities, leading the author to conclude that they must have been manipulated by right-wing forces.

The third book, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children, argues that white teachers who are wedded to their own cultural perspectives all too often fail to understand children of color. She cites a study, for instance, in which white adults, unable to appreciate a “non-linear narrative,’' call a black child’s story “incoherent,’' while black adults praise it for its detail and description.

But while Delpit, who has taught in Alaska, New Guinea, and inner-city Philadelphia, wants teachers to be supportive of differences, she wants teachers to teach “the culture of power,’' too. The teacher as a “cultural translator’’ is charged with the task of steeping students in their own cultures while making sure they aren’t denuded of the larger culture.

Delpit is generally convincing, yet the arguments in this book and the others occasionally make one wonder if preoccupied adults aren’t forgetting about the children in the next room. It is refreshing, then, to come across a veteran black teacher--quoted by Delpit--who says: “You have to know the kids; they may be from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures, but if you really listen to them, they’ll tell you how to teach them.’' Here, finally, is multiculturalism with a human face.

--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Books


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