Celebrating Diversity vs.
Preparing for the Mainstream: a Pseudo-Controversy?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
Jack Sprat could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean.
And so betwixt the two of them they licked the platter clean.
- Mother Goose, Nursery Rhyme
Education, particularly public education, is such an exhausting undertaking that not infrequently we find educators distracting themselves from substantial problems, such as funding programs, maintaining buildings, or replacing classroom equipment, by an obsessive focus on a vaguely formulated question. Should schools celebrate diversity? Never mind what this question boils down to in practical terms: we need entertainment. Should schools prepare children for the mainstream? Again, don't bother us with critical analyses -- we need simplicity. Formulated as a controversy, the question makes the distraction from bottom-line hard issues even more recreational: should the schools celebrate diversity or prepare students for the mainstream? Instead of evaluating costs and benefits, assessing risks and dealing with a reality of shades of gray in which today's allies may be tomorrow's adversaries, we want black-and-white -- or at least starkly multicolored -- choices.
If we look at the apparent debate on whether schools should celebrate diversity or prepare students for the mainstream, we find that it is problematic in two different dimensions. In the first, there is a multitude of probably factually false or questionable assumptions that underlie the debate and enable its formulation. In the second dimension, in which we assume that some consistent sense can be made of the proposals to "celebrate diversity" and to "prepare students for the mainstream," several difficult questions arise about exactly how such proposals should be implemented. Let's look more closely at these two dimensions.
What does "celebrating diversity" assume? How is one to understand this phrase? Can we expect there will be a common understanding of it? It is not unusual to find that "diversity" as defined by school policies, legal precedents, and government regulations is not what real students, parents, educators, and other members of the community perceive as diversity. There is substantial controversy as to whether such categories as Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Middle-class,Underclass, homosexual, straight, special, or regular demarcate real or generally important distinctions in the world. Many of these distinctions have been argued to be little more than mythological constructs that serve political agendas. Educators, under pressure to avoid controversy, tend to treat these distinctions as given, as though they were rocks that could be arranged into a garden -- read, "program" -- with minimal problems; only technical skill is needed. That is a delusion.
In actuality, educational benefits -- e.g., admissions, diplomas, scholarships, etc. -- are distributed in our population based on several distinctions among personal attributes: sex, race, height, ability, effort, choice, need, wealth, handicap, potential, and achievement. The use of these distinctions represents a consensus, often unstable, about their "reality" and importance. They threaten, at any moment, to break out into conflicts that too frequently impinge on the day-to-day activities of the schools. Little wonder, then, that educators are disposed to discuss them infrequently, and out of earshot of the public.
Do school activities of "celebration" necessarily have a positive effect on students? Does any experienced teacher believe that students can't tell what is merely lip service and what is substantial commitment? And don't they nonetheless often confuse the two? As they pass through adolescence students tend to be "unrealistically" idealistic: they assume adults are hypocrites. Do educators believe that school activities of "celebration" can offset this?
Plato believed that evil was the result of nothing more than ignorance. This prejudice infects the thinking of many educators today. So it is that we find programs proposed on the grounds that knowledge of difference -- or what passes for knowledge -- increases tolerance of difference. A cautious respect for fact requires us, however, to allow that whether Plato was right, and to what extent, are matters to be determined by careful research. What we have engaged in, instead, is experimentation with children whom the law has entrapped for us as subjects.
"Preparing for the Mainstream"
What is the mainstream? Is it the same at different times and places? One need only travel from town to town across these United States and discover how different "the mainstream" can be.
On the other hand, is "the mainstream" merely a slogan for pushing "English Only" programs, or for cutting back on music and the arts in public schools, or -- as I observed at one school board meeting -- for getting rid of Macintosh computers and replacing them with IBM clones? Don't these possibilities make it reasonable to rein in our enthusiasm about how readily the schools respond to their role as "preparer"?
How does one prepare for something, especially when it is not clear what one is preparing for? Our society changes quickly. But for their perennial underfunding, public schools could all too easily be overresponsive to calls to prepare students for some external condition or another.
I interviewed for a position some years ago with a major educational research corporation. I was to develop a description of a vocational-education project so that it could be replicated across the country. The project had a 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates. It was working then on pilot funds received from the federal government. The corporation hoped that with an adequate description, a substantially larger grant could be obtained.
I asked how it was possible to get 100 percent placement. My interviewer told me that this was done by offering prospective employers a stipend to offset future wages to be paid. No student was accepted into the program unless an employer had been found who had accepted the agreement. When I asked how such arrangements could be replicated across the country, given that we did not control our economy the way the Soviets did, I received the reply, "Ed, that is the one question around here that we never ask."
I did not accept the job. Someone else did. The description was written up. The government grant was secured. This was in 1975. That project has left no traces. Its perpetrators have advanced in reputation and position.
Suppose There Were a Consensus on "Celebrating Diversity"
Many assumptions underlie the debate over whether the schools should celebrate diversity or prepare for the mainstream. No less problematic is the situation in which we postulate that those assumptions are founded on reality and then proceed to try to implement either alternative.
What exactly are we going to celebrate? Cultural differences? As defined by whom? Everyone? Or just those claimed by a vehement constituency? What about ethnic differences? Or gender differences, or religious differences, or differences in sexual preference? Count up all your categories and divide them into 180 (on the average) school days. Apportion them among different classes. What could this mean in terms of curricular effects? Something more than nonsense or sentimentality?
What would count as celebration? Banners, special assemblies, speeches from notables? Will anyone do research to see if there is a negative effect on SAT scores? Will anyone do any research to check if the students are positively affected by this focus on what makes them, as individuals, different from others? Whose welfare is being considered here?
How different should students be allowed to be, and who will and should have the authority to deny permission? Difference often generates conflict; and conflict is a common means of maintaining difference. Dare we as educators push this very far? Doesn't the family, the church, or the community have any responsibility here? Do the schools have the resources to succeed here where they fail?
Suppose There Were A Consensus on "Preparing for the Mainstream"
Given that there were a consensus, what problems would still exist with "preparing for the mainstream"? The problem of "which mainstream?" would still exist. Should we focus on the culture and economy of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles to make the choice? Who is this "we"? There are more than 15,000 school boards in this country. What are their ideas of what the mainstream is, or should be?
There are less comfortable questions. Should the people whose preferences and practices define the mainstream be permitted (by whom?) to do so? Do the major TV networks define it? How about the religious right, or academic left? Do they define the mainstream to some extent? How can this be changed, if it should?
How about a boring question: do schools have the resources to effectively define, or redefine, much less implement preparation for, the mainstream? What about time lag? Kids spend twelve spotty years in basic education -- less than they do in front of the TV. How fast does the mainstream change? Specialists find it hard to keep up personally with developments in their own fields. How can schools keep up across the spectrum of the curriculum, if this curriculum is supposed to respond to changes in the "mainstream"?
Licking the Platter Clean
If educators do not attempt to get answers to the questions raised by the assumptions underlying either "celebrating diversity" or "preparing for the mainstream," nor for the real problems of implementation to be answered (even assuming consensus on those ideas), they might better spend their time on pursuits unrelated to education. How about a P.D. James mystery? Even simple physical activity clears the mind far better than expatiation on vague concepts.
Think of the millions of hours of educators' time spent each year on contemplating and arguing about concepts that are as vague as their professional discussion is haphazard. As diverting as such controversy may be, it consumes resources that might be put to better use.