Education Opinion

Diversity and Multiculturalism: The Independent School Story (Part 4 of 4)

By Peter Gow — August 07, 2013 6 min read
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Education Moves Ahead, as the founding head of my school, Eugene R. Smith, titled his wise and still disturbingly original summary of progressive education in 1924. And as it moves, it both accumulates things and leaves others behind.

In the previous three segments of this reflective overview of independent school “diversity” efforts over the past few decades I’ve tried to lay out some of the challenges as schools have seen them and some of their responses. But each year we teach new children, and new adults enter our communities, so in a sense the work we do to build our multicultural communities must be begun anew each year.

There are persistent challenges and new ones that emerge as our understandings are refined by experience and occasional gut-wrenching misadventure. I suspect we will all start school in a somewhat chastened state of mind after the Trayvon Martin verdict; Trayvon could have been our President thirty-five years ago, yes, but he could have been any of our African American students this morning. However utopian we might wish our schools to be, our streets are not. And recent Supreme Court decisions on voting rights and affirmative action seem to have revived some troublingly pre-Civil Rights Era attitudes. We all have to live with this, but for historically oppressed minorities, these trends have sharp and jagged teeth. And then there’s income disparity--the One-Percent versus the minimum wagers to whom McDonald’s corporate central lately so helpfully offered budgeting advice, minus things like groceries and heat.

On the flip side, maybe, are the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding gay marriage, and how these will affect both attitudes and statutes around discrimination against LGBTQ children and adults. Things seem hopeful, but retrenchment is sometimes only a caucus away. And the profile of transgender and transgendering students is slowly rising, requiring schools to make decisions on topics they have never thought about.

Immigration, reformed or not, has meant an influx into America’s communities of new waves of diversity and the need for new or enhanced sorts of services for families and children. Independent schools who truly want to reflect their communities will need to respond; the Dream Act, even in its watered-down form, at least means that in many places undocumented students are not in quite such legal jeopardy as they were a few years back--but financing education beyond high school remains a huge challenge for them as well as for all low-income students.

Many of America’s new citizens are Asian by birth or heritage, leaving students and their school communities to wrestle with the “model minority” stereotype and how to combat it. Stereotypes of all sorts persist like layers of old paint on our society, and “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon that first hit the national consciousness in an Atlantic Monthly article by Claude Steele in 1999, continues to take its toll on the achievement of African American (especially male) students. (A recent Steele book on the subject, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, ought to be required reading for every educator.)

And while popular media continue to happily toss off racial and ethnic stereotypes as the basis of music and humor, when kids bring these into the schoolyard things can go sour. The institutional and classroom balance between letting things pass and calling in the “P[olitically] C[orrect] police” remains a tough call, with no right answers and few ever completely satisfied. “The harder we work at this stuff,” a colleague once observed, “the better we get at it, and the harder it all becomes.”

The work might be hardest of all for schools in areas where there simply is little or no critical mass of demographic diversity; they do still exist. How does a school, or a teacher, create a kind of “virtual diversity,” a cultural condition in which participants bring into the room the voices and perspectives of a non-existent diversity? This would seem to be an essential ingredient of a 21st-century American education, but establishing it in a monocultural setting requires intention, skill, and training.

Ten years ago Beverly Daniel Tatum, now president of Spelman College, offered schools an explanation for one puzzling phenomenon in her classic Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Another candidate for required reading (as it has been for many independent school faculties), this book explores and explains the day-to-day challenges of being a minority in a school and offers readers both insight into racial identity development and yet another glimpse of the notion of privilege--who has it and who doesn’t--famously identified by Peggy McIntosh in her enduring 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Many of us are still working hard to unpack this in order to become real allies in diversity work and not just politely applauding bystanders.

Early on I wrote here about independent school-public school partnerships and the worthy goals of the National Network of Schools in Partnership. The challenge in this work is to keep such partnerships authentic, with mutual interests served and mutual perspectives aired and shared, and avoid the appearance (or worse, the fact) of old-fashioned noblesse oblige kinds of “charitable service.” Here, too, stereotypes go both ways, and working through them is often the first step toward success.

Although the “elitist” tag still smarts, a number of independent schools have worked hard to embed ideas like social justice and community engagement not just into their mission statements but into their programs. If critics view these efforts cynically, the people carrying them out--administrators, teachers, students--most assuredly do not; it’s a weak argument to blame kids for the situation they were born into--rich, poor, or otherwise--and a weaker one still to scoff at their efforts to improve their world in whatever ways they can.

In a nutshell, independent schools are what they are, and most now recognize that they cannot be “schools on the hill” but rather must be active parts of their communities, confronting all of the problems and all of the possibilities faced by American society as a whole. Fitfully in some places and with verve and confidence in others, schools are pressing forward. They haven’t solved the conundrum of diversity and multiculturalism, but they have worked hard to get a handle on it, to name it and explore it and make it work in the service of their missions and of their students, faculties, and families.

This doesn’t mean that independent schools open in the fall of 2013 with any more wisdom or any more knowledge than anyone else. They do open with access to a relatively new instrument for measuring their efforts in the National Association of Independent Schools “Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism,” which brings to “the work” the wisdom and knowledge gained in twenty years or so of experience and is supported by a reorganized NAIS office of equity and justice.

And so the work, like education as a whole, will move ahead, with new challenges unfolding, new students eager to create a new world for themselves, and new adults trying to figure out how it all goes together.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.