The mythical cocoon of the suburbs and gated communities is imploding with the ascendancy of persons of color in every sphere of society. Policies of containment from the 19th and 20th centuries have collapsed. Where there are pockets of monochromatic populations, there is a rude awakening for students and workers once they embark on any path beyond the walls of their community or school. For the privileged that aspire to leadership, it is important to know that the constituents, employees, students, or troops that are the grassroots or rank and file that they expect to follow them are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and diverse.
There is no running or hiding from this reality. Whether or not classrooms or communities are prepared for a now future is the issue. Generally, the answer is no. Teachers in classrooms and managers in the work place do not reflect the students they teach or customers they serve. The disconnect between those that would teach and lead and those that are taught or served is draconian. Not so long ago traditional values and a cannon of knowledge were touted as essential to the future of democracy because demands for multiple perspectives challenged Eurocentric content, pedagogy and professional leadership. Simultaneously schools and communities became as segregated as they were when it was legal. It is, however, harder and harder to preserve cultural or ethnic isolation.
And, the culture disconnect partially explains the chronic under performance of some schools and classrooms. In contrast, the leaders of business and industry embrace their multi-cultural customers to do their commerce. The same is true in international affairs. To develop and sustain positive and productive relationships with persons of a different cultural or ethnic background, organizations try to reflect and, sometimes, respect their partners, clients or customers. The same must be so in schools and classrooms.
Too often, the vestiges of the education policy of assimilation from the 19th century are present in contemporary schools and classrooms. Essentially, the dominant culture wanted all other citizens to be like them. This seemed plausible when the newcomers were from Europe. Assimilation became a dysfunctional and failed policy because wiping out the cultural character of people and communities conflicted with the principles of democracy. Apparently, too many education practitioners did not get the memorandum, particularly those in higher education.
Acknowledging that well-intentioned teachers do not understand, or respect, the cultural character of their students is a pre-requisite to effective teaching. The cultural competence necessary for effective teaching in schools and classrooms should be axiomatic but it is not. Such competence must be a part of pre-service preparation and continuous professional development.
Attempts to sanitize schools and classrooms of meaningful cultural artifacts of students and their families echoes the systematic prohibition against enslaved Africans from speaking their native language—a premier artifact of culture. The Aleut communities on opposite sides of the Baring Strait had their historical language and culture codified and taught in schools on one side and not on the other; the students grounded in their culture outperformed the students that were not taught their language and culture. Stripping children and their communities of cultural artifacts is akin to cutting off their legs while requiring them to run in a race.
Music is another cultural artifact that is too often discounted, dismissed, and eliminated from school and classroom norms—rarely do music appreciation activities include the blues, jazz, salsa, hip hop, or the folk and secular music of Islam. The same is true of dietary preferences. No less important is the content of instructional materials, lessons, and pedagogy.
It is conceivable that the rash of discord plaguing our communities reflects both an increased self-awareness among disenfranchised communities and a grasp by privileged communities to sustain cultural eminence. A clash is predictable. Both conditions result from a combination of education and mis-education. Far too little cultural content is evident in the development of diverse school-aged children. Such a cultural gap starkly conflicts with popular culture, athletics, and social media.
The Rio Olympics depicted a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and diverse world community all too often not evident in the cultural competence of teachers and administrators. Such a flaw is hard to explain and should not be allowed to persist.
When the clamor for diversifying curriculum and personnel erupted, acclaimed historians and thought leaders proclaimed that the embrace of a multi-cultural society would compromise the coherence of the United States of America. The theory of the American melting pot imagined sameness with no regard or tolerance for differences. Membership in humankind makes us all the same—confirmed by the breakthrough mapping of the human “Genome”. Within the context of humanity there is room for cultural and ethnic variation and the concomitant respect and tolerance. Without such there could be no Rio Olympics, no peace, and no prospect of a future.
It is education that must promulgate our humanity with its cultural variations. Herein lies the challenge for both urban and rural classrooms. Increasingly, children of various cultural backgrounds are the numeric majority in American classrooms due to the flight of the middle class. Meanwhile, teachers are overwhelmingly white (and will be) and ill prepared for the cultural variations of their students, families, and communities. This can be most stark in rural communities where tradition often trumps best practice, innovation, and new cultural norms. There is not, however, nor should there be, a test for cultural competence because of the never-ending pursuit of understanding and insight into the nuance of another culture.
In pre-service preparation, education students must have a cultural immersion experience—not unlike the language immersion experience associated with living and studying in a foreign country to acquire fluency in a second language. To employ a new teacher in a rural or inner city urban school without a cultural immersion experience is to shackle the novice to cultural norms destined to clash with students, their families, and communities.
A cultural immersion experience is just the beginning of what teachers need to do if they are expected to accelerate achievement. In the same way that medical doctors routinely participate in embedded continuing education, teachers must constantly develop their cultural repertoire—all teachers. Culture is not static. It is constantly evolving. Presumptions of insight or understanding “my students” can lead to the discord that is prevalent in schools and communities and with police officers.
Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and diverse classrooms and communities are not trivial challenges. And such settings are not a distant promissory note. With fewer and fewer exceptions, schools and their communities are multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and full of multiple perspectives. Any effort to “whitewash” the “unwashed” in the tradition of assimilation will likely result in turbulence—prohibitions against dreadlocks, corn rolls, tattoos, hijabs are a few examples. So too will any effort to ship away the culturally different—a previously tried and failed policy and practice.
Nurtured, our diversity is an asset. It is the role and responsibility of classrooms and schools to elevate and extol the virtues of our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic humanity with its cultural variations.