Other People's Children
(New Press, $14.95)
With this exquisite collection of essays, academic papers, and articles first published between 1986 and 1993, Lisa Delpit addresses the original sin, and perhaps fatal flaw, of the progressive movement in American education: its failure to include, or even hear, the views and experiences of those outside the white mainstream culture.
This exclusion, which Delpit documents and describes with painful candor, drawing on both her teaching experience and her research, lies at the heart of Other People's Children. But the book's contribution is greater than this. By giving voice to teachers of color—and through them to children, parents, and entire communities outside the white middle-class milieu—it brings a much-needed perspective to the progressive canon.
The first two chapters carry much of this weight. In the first, "Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator," Delpit recounts her early experiences as a teacher. Working at an alternative inner-city school in Philadelphia during the 1970s, she tried the techniques of the open classroom—"the most humanizing of learning environments"—to benefit her mostly black students. But at the end of six years, Delpit felt she had failed; she had been successful only to the extent that she had employed traditional methods. Nonetheless, she still identified herself as an open-classroom teacher.
Later, at graduate school, Delpit "readily and heartily embraced" a progressive approach to literacy teaching known as the "writing process." She so thoroughly adopted this pedagogy that she was stunned when a friend and fellow black teacher "adamantly insisted" that it "was doing a monumental disservice to black children." Although Delpit initially defended the program, she was later shaken and reminded of her past failures. Rather than bury her doubts a second time, though, she began to explore minority-teacher involvement in writing-process projects. To her surprise, she discovered that most black teachers she spoke with believed the approach was inappropriate for black students. And many regarded it as racist and damaging, primarily because it failed to teach the skills needed to write standard prose—skills vital to success.
At this point, Delpit began to devise and articulate a new perspective. This culminated with "Skills and Other Dilemmas," which was first published in 1986 as an article in the Harvard Educational Review. In it, she states she has two goals: "to defend my fellow minority educators at the same time I seek to reestablish my own place in the progressive educational arena."
"I have come to believe," she writes, "that the 'open-classroom movement,' despite its progressive intentions, faded in large part because it was not able to come to terms with the concerns of poor and minority communities. It is time to look closely at elements of our educational system, particularly those elements we consider progressive; time to see whether there is minority involvement and support, and if not to ask why."
Delpit does not argue that teachers must share their students' ethnicity. "I have seen too many excellent European American teachers of African American students, and too many poor African American teachers of African American students to come to such an illogical conclusion," she writes. Still, she goes on to point out that the most articulate champions in education for minority communities, teachers of color, have not been heard within the progressive movement.
In the second chapter, "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Delpit examines how well-intentioned white progressives managed to fail so miserably with what was intended as a liberating pedagogy for poor and minority students. This section is essential to understanding the book's vital message. It is a piece of great subtlety, depth, and power, and yet, like most insights of genius, much of it seems like common sense.
Here Delpit argues that white progressives failed because they forced their agenda on minority teachers and families, most of whom rejected what was being offered. This happened, she writes, because those with power are frequently unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, their power. Those with less power, on the other hand, "are often most aware of its existence," she adds.
Delpit goes on to explain, then, that the key issue is not one of pedagogy—"the actual practice of good teachers of all colors typically incorporates a range of pedagogical orientations"—but one of power. It's a matter, she writes, of "whose voice gets to be heard in determining what is best for poor children and children of color."
"Will black teachers and parents continue to be silenced by the very forces that claim to 'give voice' to our children?" she asks. "Such an outcome would truly be tragic, for both groups truly have something to say to one another."
The good news is that Other People's Children has dramatically changed education. The growing acceptance of the parents' role in schools, the recognition of the need for balanced pedagogy, and the acknowledgment by many progressive educators that they can learn from the traditional methods of African American educators are all evidence of the book's influence.
By courageously facing up to the wrenching truths of the progressive movement's most glaring failures, and by returning to its most essential values—openness, inclusion, and relevance—Delpit shows how to restore progressivism as a viable education option in the nation's poor and minority communities.
Vol. 11, Issue 7, Page 56Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Other People's Children