Group Identity (Part Nine)

Removed from many curriculum – as “unreliable”

This ninth installment of my series on education and the focus of group identity is particularly important to me. Only because I feel so strongly about this topic. I am completely opposed to the idea that students can only relate to literature written by authors of the same ethnic background and gender as they are and to literature written about people just like them. And although I used to lecture my students about this topic fifteen to twenty years ago, I am completely shocked at how this idea has become so mainstream today.

So let’s get into it…

Another way instruction has been affected is that students have been led to believe that they can only learn from someone of their own race or culture. And this belief extends to their reading material as well. Teachers and administrations make decisions regarding what should be read and written about based on the group makeup of a class rather than on the academic value of a reading or writing assignment. Students are quick to believe that they can only find value in readings by authors who belong to their group, and they can only learn from reading about topics that address specific issues directly related to their particular group.

Changing high school reading requirements so that the authors match the ethnic and gender breakdown of the “community” was all the rage. 

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Today, of course, all of this goes without saying. The works that have been historically considered classics have been removed from the curriculum (hmmmm… Could we say they have been “banned”?). And basic foundational texts of Western Civilization have also been removed. If a teacher does not assign readings from marginalized communities, that teacher is clearly a racist. 

In the late 1990s, I was listening to a talk radio program, and the host was discussing this issue with his guest, a graduate of the Oakland Unified School District who was now attending UC Berkley. She had been born in El Salvador, and her family had moved to the United States when she was four years old. She explained her support of assigning literature by people who match the ethnic background of students. Her reasoning was that high school was very difficult, specifically for her, because she never read anything that she could relate to. And she couldn’t relate because never saw herself in any of the literature she was assigned to read. 

That meant that she was not assigned a book in which the central character is an El Salvadoran American girl in high school and living in Oakland.

The radio host followed up by asking her to give an example of a book that she was required to read but that she just could not relate to. Her answer? Romeo and Juliet

This is where she lost me.

I understand that Shakespeare is difficult, but that was not her complaint. She said she could not relate.

Is there any story more universal than Romeo and Juliet? Forbidden love, revenge, fate, sacrifice, the clash of the individual against the group? These are universal themes that cross cultures and centuries. But simply because the author is a dead white male, this play has no meaning to her. 

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Each semester, I shared this story with students. I would typically ask them whether they thought that people in El Salvador ever fell in love with someone their parents disapproved of. They all agreed that this was something that probably happened in El Salvador. Do people in El Salvador ever seek revenge against their enemies? Of course they do. Is there ever, in El Salvador, an individual who finds himself opposing a group? The answer was always an overwhelming yes.

But simply because the author is a dead white male, she proclaimed that she could find no this meaning in this play.

Part of the problem is the overall state of education of literature right now. Rather than a focus on themes presented in literature, many classes place their focus on social justice topics and on the ethnicity of the author and of characters. There are many reasons that the study of theme has been abandoned, and I have addressed them in an essay that can be found HERE. But, when theme has been dismissed, it becomes easy to believe that a particular classic is irrelevant if you don’t match the immutable characteristics of the characters and author.

This is why Shakespeare has been eliminated from so many curricula. 

I suppose she thinks that since I am white, I can relate to it, but because she is Hispanic, she sees no value in it. 

The fact of the matter is that as a white woman in twenty-first century California, I have much more in common with her than I do with men in Elizabethan England or young aristocratic lovers in Renaissance Italy, white or not! 

But I can certainly relate to falling in love (and out of it), disobeying parents (sorry Mom), grief over the death of a loved one (I still am brought to tears thinking about and missing Jacci), and passion. If the story were about a Zimbabwe family or a Vietnamese family, it makes no difference. The humanness remains. And isn’t it literature that so powerfully points out universalities and shows us what humans can achieve?

In fact, I purposely seek out literature by and about people very different from me so that I can be exposed to experiences, personalities, dilemmas, cultures, and values that are very different from my own. Why would I want to keep reading about me? Seriously. Should I only have been assigned novels by middle class white women? Or about middle class white women? Where is the growth in that?

Such shallow thinking is the exact opposite of what I would hope education is all about. But this is a more and more common belief.

When teachers buy into this belief that students can only enjoy or relate to those books written by people just like themselves and about people just like themselves, then they are explicitly telling students that it is true that they cannot relate to anyone who is different from them. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They believe they cannot, so why try? 

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Why bother reading the book, let alone why bother engaging in it or analyzing it?

Of course, it doesn’t take long for this belief to be extended to the professors and to the idea that students of a particular ethnic or racial background should only be taught by a professor of the same ethnic or racial background. And this is a theory that has been promoted throughout higher education.

And what about the larger society? What does all of this say about relationships of people in the same city, neighborhood, street? Better to ignore your neighbor who is of a different racial or ethnic background. How could you possible relate to them? I am certainly glad my neighbors of 18 years, who were Lebanese, did not abide by this practice. We may have had some hiccups and misunderstandings, thanks to a language barrier early on, but soon the kids all played together, we attended each other’s parties, or we gathered for karaoke. We learned from each other. And we could relate to each other—we loved our children, we appreciated friendships, we relied on each other, we valued our property.

Even politicians go along with the idea that students cannot learn outside of their own group identity.

About a year ago [2006], then California Senate Majority Whip, Richard Alarcon, criticized a group of college faculty at the college where I teach for not adequately teaching to the Hispanic community.

“You must teach them from where they come,” he proclaimed. In other words, he elaborated, if students are from a farm, we should teach them math by discussing rows of corn and cows. And if they are from a rough neighborhood, such as Pacoima, California, then we should teach them about Pacoima. 

Apparently, according to Alarcon, a student from Pacoima cannot understand math unless the units discussed come from elements of life in Pacoima. If Johnny’s dad was sentenced to 15 years in prison but got five years off for good behavior, how many years did he serve?

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This is so abhorrently racist I can hardly believe that this has become accepted as obvious. Talk about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

But if they already know about life in Pacoima, why do they need to come to school to learn about that? I thought college was about learning other points of views, other cultures, and other lifestyles, and investigating abstract issues that have nothing to do with culture. 

What Alarcon must have missed in school is that when it comes to learning math, the units are irrelevant. We can add rows of corn, numbers of squirrels, ounces of marijuana, karats of diamonds. It is the number that is significant, that is necessary to understand. By only referring to units with which the student is already familiar, how does this expand their minds, broaden their knowledge? 

A student doesn’t need to know what a javelin is to solve the problem “If John had ten javelins and sold three to Juan, how many does he have left?” And maybe with exposure to the word, the student will actually learn what a javelin is. Math is about the numbers. The units are interchangeable. What a student needs to learn is that the formulas, the concepts, are applicable to ALL units, not just the unit given in the example, not just the units with which they have daily contact.

In fact, the ability to apply the concept of addition, for example, to other situations, is a higher thinking skill that we should help all students achieve. Adding rows of corn is the same skill used in adding baseball cards. You do not have to grow up on a farm or be a sports nut to figure that out.

Why would a self-proclaimed leader of the Hispanic community insist that the only way to teach the “community” is to teach them math based on units with which they are familiar? Doesn’t this smack of racism? Aren’t Hispanics just as capable of applying these skills beyond their own worlds? If they already know about rows of corn, don’t we want to teach them about what they do not know? Isn’t this what education is all about?

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Oh boy. Finishing up this installment is getting my heart rate up. I think we have now seen just how detrimental this attitude has been on education and on the students who have been convinced that they are so different from others based on their group identity that they cannot relate to them. And we wonder why our country is so divided.

The next installment expands on that a bit and will discuss how group identity impacts a student’s self-image.

2 thoughts on “Group Identity (Part Nine)

    1. Vickie

      Thank you!! Certainly 25 after years in education I had some crazy experiences and have a lot to say. As for a book? You never know – haha

      Like

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