Education Opinion

Issues in Supporting School Diversity: Academics, Social Relations, and the Arts

By Judith Lynne Hanna — April 24, 1991 7 min read

Supporting diversity in the schools is a shibboleth in education and even a mandate in some states. But while such support is invaluable, the odyssey to achieve it is often fraught with danger.

Because the arts are a particularly vibrant means of entering a culture, offering at once valuable information about their creators, producers, and audiences, I have been interested in my career in gauging the impact and potential of multicultural arts education. Exposure to various esthetics and their sociocultural contexts and history, I have found, allows a person to see and understand more than his or her own footsteps. Diverse cultures may have unique and meaningful ways of expressing universal themes.

Experiencing similarities and differences in these modes of expression often helps an individual become more skillful and comfortable interacting with members of diverse groups at work and at play. Learning about one’s own culture usually provides a sense of identity, roots, and self-understanding; learning about other cultures stretches the mind and can help dissolve prejudice.

A key problem in this and other approaches to multicultural education, however, is intracultural variation--diversity within diversity. Society often puts homogeneous labels on groups that differentiate themselves. And a cultural designation, in this context, may become a false or damaging stereotype behind which an individual is submerged.

Members of a “group” may disagree on what aspects of the group’s or subgroup’s culture should be reflected in school, and how. The group’s disagreement may in turn create school-community friction. Given the richness and abundance of cultural diversity, along with limited time in school, putting priorities on what receives attention is unavoidable. When a group lacks a specific, easily identified form of cultural expression that other groups may have--a dance, for example--who decides what is appropriate to create and designate as such, and how?

African-Americans often recognize divisions based on social class, skin color, region or country of origin, amount of time lived in an area, gender, age, religion, and kind of racist oppression experienced. Yet, policymakers often regard them as a homogeneous, unified group because they are a minority with African roots.

Some African-Americans even view aspects of African-American culture, such as gospel music, “feeling the spirit” through kinetic manifestation, and traditional dance genres as esthetically inferior. In a Philadelphia school, for example, officials banned children’s spontaneous playground dancing, “doin’ steps,” as “lewd, fresh, inappropriate for school, disrespectful, and too sexual.” Officials in a Dallas school, on the other hand, had no objection to this kind of dancing.

The “Hispanic” and “Caribbean” communities of New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles include both recent immigrants and established families of Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Puerto Ricans. This diversity, compounded by generational and life-cycle divisions, reflects a plethora of diverse music and dance.

A second problem is that, although there is a worthy panoply of rationales for multicultural education and multicultural arts education, there is little evidence that specific programs and approaches do what they are supposed to do. Rationales are based on such transformations as helping minority students succeed in school, improving social relations among groups, assisting all students in reaching their potential, developing respect for diverse but equally valid forms of expression, avoiding the causes of oppression, and dispelling stereotypes.

But at least one evaluation has demonstrated the gap between such program goals and outcomes. Raymond Giles, who coordinated the New York City African-American Institute’s in-service courses on Africa, later interviewed 15 classes of predominantly African-American students in grades 4, 5, and 6 in Central Harlem. The students had nine months of once- or twice-a-week hourly study of African culture and history aimed at improving their self-image and engendering an appreciation of the African heritage. In his talks with the students, however, Mr. Giles found that most expressed the same hostile beliefs and negative stereotypes about Africa held by the uninformed or misinformed.

It is even possible that exposure to symbols of a cultural group might evoke a new negativity toward that group--if, for example, the symbol, perhaps a dance, is disliked, or the previously held negative associations remain unchallenged.

A third problem is the sometimes antithetical relationship between preserving symbols of a cultural group, such as the arts, and socioeconomic mobility. The arts can reflect what is, as well as suggest what might be. For migrants or immigrants to a new place, their own group’s arts often provide an anchor in a sea of uncertainty, catharsis, and an emotional ballast for life’s travails. Nonetheless, if the arts are embedded in a low-status, culturally conservative group, they may ultimately hamper the performers’ integration into a new setting and their socioeconomic mobility. Some researchers, in fact, criticize multicultural education as a palliative to keep minorities from rebelling against oppressive systems.

At times, upwardly mobile groups eschew their own cultural esthetic expression and take on the art forms of the group they wish to emulate on the next rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Mexicans in Texas incorporated beats and patterns of the music and dance of the German and Polish farmers into their own cross-pollinated Tex-Mex music and dance. It is often only when people have improved their socioeconomic situation that they rediscover their earlier cultural heritage.

Because the arts often reflect a group identity and are viewed as property, a fourth problem in supporting diversity is that an outsider’s appropriation of a cultural group’s art form may be resented, even considered a form of theft or offense. The religious beliefs among some American Indians, for example, preclude a secularization of sacred art. Some other groups do not want their culture to be presented in schools because they want the schools to “Americanize” their children.

A fifth issue is that good intentions in the use of the arts in multicultural education may go astray because people are not sufficiently aware of each other’s point of view. Sometimes an art form may be unrealistically romanticized, symbolize a low-status group, or have a ritual status. Because people may feel uncomfortable discussing cultural differences, they may inadvertently offend or hurt each other.

Recognition of ethnically related artistic diversity itself may cause problems. Some children do not want to be singled out for what they are. Recognition for any reason--cultural-group esthetic expression or academic achievement--may subject them to ridicule and humiliation. For children in general, fear of being humiliated ranks high among their concerns.

There are at least three approaches to dealing with these problems:

  • Investigating sensitivities and complexities. It is critical to develop an awareness among educators that cultures are not only internally diverse but ever-changing. Besides receiving multicultural training, educators can benefit from learning how to discover the views and problems of the groups they serve. Moreover, there should be encouragement for parents, teachers, and students to speak forthrightly in settings free from incrimination and penalty.

Listening to children’s voices about their social world, their peer-group priorities and pressures, their family and community life, and the arts is also necessary in order to know how best to help them.

  • Balancing assimilation with diversity. It may be wise to provide all individuals with the opportunity for choice by teaching the skills, knowledge, and culture that allow a person access to socioeconomic mobility with the possibility of code switching (being able to operate in one or another culture at will). In addition, recognizing the cultural entity that defines what is an American helps avoid enforced divisiveness.
  • Evaluation. It is important not only to discover whether programs intended to support diversity in schools validate their goals, but also to assess the often surprisingly unintended effects caused by well-meaning programs.
  • Research can reveal students’ felt and reflective experiences in response to exposure to different cultures’ expressions. Cultural expressions such as the arts are symbols and, as such, they are a shorthand and susceptible to distortion. Moreover, symbols and their meanings change over time in response to environmental forces.

    American culture is integrative, incorporative, cross-pollinating, and amalgamating. Americans have many identities: separate personal identities, separate cultural identities, and common identities. Recognition of difference need not become an immutable stone wall to our country’s strength.

    A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 1991 edition of Education Week as Issues in Supporting School Diversity:Academics, Social Relations, and the Arts