from educational Horizons Spring 1998

"Celebrating Diversity or Preparing for the Mainstream?"
Considering Another Choice
©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 9/2/11

Competent educators certainly must understand cultural differences. Otherwise, they are incompetent. But to "celebrate" diversity is another matter. For one thing, the beliefs and practices of various cultures are, in many instance, incompatible with one another. So, in spite of the urgings of pedagogical Pollyanna's, educators often have to choose between them.

This incompatibility is easily evident. Suppose, for example, I teach a class with youngsters whose culture of origin does not value timeliness. (There are many such cultures. When I resided in Jamaica, for example, I quickly discovered that events scheduled for, say, 2:00 might not start until 3:00 or even 3:30.) And let's further suppose that the rest of the children in the class share cultural backgrounds that place a higher value on showing up at the scheduled time. If I, as teacher, am committed to the "celebration" of difference, what shall I do about the "soon come" kid's different time sense? It seems clear the rest of us should not wait patiently until these particular kids trickle in to class and then give them a round of applause for manifesting difference. And if I just ignore their tardiness, that might start something no one could live with. So, in the final analysis, I must insist on timeliness -- though I could do it in an understanding way. I might even ask these kids to tell the others about their culture of origin's sense of time. But you just can't have it both ways.

And what about youngsters who don't agree with their parents continued commitment to the values and practices of their culture of origin. When that is the case, whose side should an educator be on? I recall a news story, for example, about a young lady of eighteen. She and her family originally were from India. True to their cultural tradition, her parents arranged a marriage for her to a much older man. But she was in love with an American her own age and refused to cooperate. Her parents were about to ship her back to India against her will when she ran away. Her mother and father reported her missing and the story made the news when local authorities refused to look for her once they discovered the circumstances. When she finally surfaced, she was married to her American boyfriend. Now let's suppose that while this thing is hatching she is in my class and seeks my advice. Should I "celebrate" her family's cultural values by encouraging her to obey her parents and return to India to marry? And if she understands herself to be an American rather than an Indian-American, should I emphasize her Indian origins anyway?

Similarly, suppose I have a young lady from Saudi Arabia in my class. Her parents, true to their culture of origin, absolutely refuse to let her read literature by and about women because, from a Saudi point of view, they encourage immodesty and impiousness. If I am her English teacher and am committed to the celebration of diversity, should I side with her parents and refuse to help her learn anything that might undermine her culture of origin? And if I discover that she still is secretly reading the likes of Kate Chopin or Harriet Arnow, should I tell her parents? It is undeniable that many of the world's cultures reject equal rights for women. When they do, should an educator encourage kids to celebrate that difference?

Other cultural practices raise similar problems. We're told, for instance, that corruption in Zaire has reached such extraordinary levels that the society is best described as a "kleptocracy." So let's imagine that I get a Zairean kid in my class who is fresh off the plane. And let's further suppose that his parents offer to grease my palm if I give their kid an "A"." Should I take the money and celebrate this particular cultural difference with a night on the town? I think not. Nor should I use the money to throw a pizza party for the class, where I explain to the kids how the parent of a class mate made it possible. In the final analysis I just have to say no, and consider reporting the offer.

Then there are cultures who define themselves by their hatred for others. The identity of many Bosnians, for instance, is entangled with their hatred of Serbs, and visa versa. So let's suppose I have kids from both cultures in my classroom. Should I celebrate their diversity by honoring their mutual loathing? "Look kids, do you see how Anatole is refusing to sit with Muhammed? Well he is fulfilling a cultural tradition that is hundreds of years old. Isn't that wonderful!"

For any reflective educator, the "celebration" of difference is clearly problematic. And it can even be a massive foolishness when, taken to its logical end, it promotes a radical tolerance that makes moral judgment impossible. But is the only alternative to prepare kids for the "mainstream?" Let's hope not.

Consider the misbegotten, but currently popular, notion that educators should prepare graduates who meet the needs of business and industry. Turning out more compliant Dilberts! Now that is a truly loathsome mission. Imagine preparing kids to serve the needs of corporate executive who get paid huge bonuses for mercilessly laying-off thousands of employees, who reduce cubical sizes to 4' x 4' to fit in more staff members, who "empower" more of the staff but only on things that have no real importance, who encourage quality circles but are deaf to suggestions, who permit employees to recommend their replacement after they've been fired or who "improve employee morale and productivity" with "fresh, gender sensitive" carpet and paint colors. No thank you! (By the way, these are not imaginary examples. They are actual practices selected from just one day's entries in the on-line Dilbert Zone's contest, "Top 50 Stupidest Company Initiatives Planned for 1998.")

Educators should not be celebrating diversity or preparing kids for the mainstream. We should be helping youngsters develop more fully as individuals. To do that we need to help them learn how to learn. We also need to teach them how to reason more critically. And if we are to prepare kids for specific social roles, we would be wise to concentrate on parent and citizen, not corporate minion or mass man.