On being culturally responsive

While stumbling around in an early morning attempt to research a couple of small items in today's paper, I inadvertently struck a veritable gold mine of bullshit, and I guess because I write this blog I have a um, "responsibility" to share it with my readers.

Please prepare for something as tedious to read as it is politically tedious. I wish I could make this stuff interesting, but I just don't know how.

Anyway, Philadelphia is going through something I hesitate to call a "Culture War" but it has to be called something. Perhaps a debate. The idea is requiring African History to be taught as part of the required curriculum in Philadelphia schools. I have no problem with teaching history of any kind -- as long as it's factually correct, and as long as some perspective is provided. For example, the history of the Hatfield-McCoy feuding, while interesting (and definitely a part of American history), is not as significant as the Civil War.

What always annoys me is to see history misstated, and in today's Inquirer I ran into the following:

Slavery persisted in the United States for 246 years, from the arrival of those first slaves in 1619 until 1865, when the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery throughout the United States, took effect.
Slavery did not persist in the United States for 246 years. The United States was founded in 1776, and slavery was abolished in 1865 -- a period of 89 years. While slavery was certainly a horrible feature of the the British colonies, and it is undeniable that the feature was inherited by the United States, that does not transform the colonies before the founding into "the United States." Am I being picky? Well, the subject is education, and what students should be taught, and right away I see a misstatement of history being promulgated by those who want to change the way it is taught.

The same article goes on to quote Julian Bond:

The former Georgia state senator recalled that he attended George School, the Quaker college-prep high school in Newtown, Bucks County.

"I can remember studying Charlemagne, but I can't remember a word about Africa," said Bond, a 1957 George School graduate. "That is just so completely wrong."

While I'm not as old as Bond, I too can remember being taught about Charlemagne. Christmas Day 800, all that white ethnocentric bullcrap. But I also remember a word or two about Africa. Well, at least a place in Africa. It was called Egypt, and they had a huge civilization there! I did a class project in the fourth grade on it. Seems that after the Romans took over the place went into decline. I remember that, and I remember specifically looking at it on the map, and thinking it was part of Africa.

I guess it's not part of Africa for Julian Bond, or else he was never taught anything about Egypt.

In fairness to Mr. Bond, I think he would want students to be taught about what happened in sub-Saharan, Bantu Africa around the time of 800 A.D. Here's one timeline:

AD 800

800 - 909 Aghlabid dynasty rules in Tunis on the coast of North Africa; the rulers set up a colony in Sicily (827 - 902) and invade southern Italy

c. 800 - c. 950 Christian empire in Ethiopia continues after the decline of Aksum

800s Arabs and Persians explore East African coast and set up trading stations at Malindi, Mombasa, Kilwa, and Mogadishu

868 Ahmad ibn-Tulun, Egyptian noble of Turkish descent, breaks away from Abbasid caliphate and sets up Tulunid dynasty in Egypt

OK? So what's wrong with teaching that? I have no particular objection, but is it as important as Charlemagne?

One of the problems which isn't being faced realistically is that historians are stuck with a stupid thing called the written record -- and with sub-Saharan Africa, the record is a bit scanty. As this Wikipedia entry acknowledges, history has to rely on early Arab traders:

Much is still not known about the Bantu expansion, including its origin point. Some argue that the Bantu were refugees from the drying Sahara, most believe that they originated in modern day Nigeria. It is known that their expansion was extremely rapid and massive. Over the centuries the entire southern half of Africa was covered, excluding only the Kalahari dessert. It is believed that the Bantu expansion was fueled by iron tools and also cattle based pastoralism, and cattle based economies became central in many of the Bantu lands. Only those lands that were too dry for cattle would in time become Bantu. This expansion only ended relatively recently. In the year 1000 Arab traders show that the Bantu had not reached as far as Mozambique, and European settlers observed the Bantu expansion into South Africa under the Zulu and others.
How does one teach a history that is largely unknown? Obviously, by focusing on whatever is known.

Back to Aksum/Axum (which is known). Whether it was as important as the crowning of Charlemagne (and the formation of the Holy Roman Empire) is debatable. But Axum an important enough place to give the Arab invaders a run for their money, but then it declined:

A kingdom based on the city of Axum, the forerunner of the kingdom of Abyssinia, becomes the dominant power in eastern Africa.

The city of Axum develops into the main trade centre south of the Sahara. Shortly after the conquest of Meroe, 350 AD, King Ezana of Axum converts to Christianity and declares it the state religion. From 500 AD, Axum, now more properly called Abyssinia, becomes a major power or empire, ruling not only the territory of modern Ethiopia, but parts of southwestern Arabia and much of the Sudan--an area almost as large as the Western Roman empire. An Abyssinian attack on the Arab city of Mecca was defeated in 570. Having to fend off repeated Arab invasions after 800 AD, the empire went into decline but managed to survive as a independent state.

(More on sub-Saharan history during this period here and here.)

OK class! Should I ask how many of you have clicked on every link? Or might that harm the self esteem of the non-clickers? (That's a joke; I don't give a rat's ass who clicks on what, as I have no way of knowing, and my self esteem doesn't depend on it.)

It is generally agreed that by 800 A.D., written history (in Arabic) began in those sub-Saharan places subject to Islam:

Islam reached the Savannah region in the 8th Century C.E., the date the written history of West Africa begins.

The Muslim geographers and historians have provided excellent records of Muslim rulers and peoples in Africa. Among them are Al-Khwarzimi, Ibn Munabbah, Al-Masudi, Al-Bakri, Abul Fida, Yaqut, Ibn Batutah, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Fadlallah al-'Umari, Mahmud al-Kati, Ibn al Mukhtar and Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'di.

As Jesse Jackson, Jr. acknowledges, early African literacy is based on the introduction of Arabic. (Often said to be the "Latin of Africa.")

I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but just how earthshaking or profound is it to learn that sub-Saharan African history is scanty, and that Arabs introduced literacy there? It might be as valuable as studying Aztec or Mayan or Chinese history, but I want to know what has it to do with anyone's self esteem. Why should it?

Wait a second!

I'm of Norwegian descent, and I'm feeling left out!

To be fair, there isn't a whole lot of history about what was going on in Norway in or before 800 A.D. Here's a typical entry:

The Age of the Vikings (ca. 800 - 1050 A.D.)

The Viking era marks the termination of the prehistoric period in Norway. No written sources of knowledge exist, so what is known about this period is largely based on archaeological finds. The Sagas also shed some light on this age. Although they were written down later, the Sagas were based on tales passed down orally from one generation to the next. Viewed as a whole they reveal that the Viking Age was undoubtedly the richest of all the prehistoric periods in the north.

Many scholars regard the looting in 793 of the monastery of Lindisfarne, off England's northeast coast, as the beginning of the Viking Age.

That's "my" history up until Charlemagne! Not much there; just an oral tradition, followed by a period of raiding which (ironically) caused the invaders to become literate. How important is a period which can be summarized in a couple of paragraphs? And does my "culturally responsive" self esteem require that I learn about it? Should all American students be forced to learn it in a special course? True Norwegian history begins later, and of course it follows the growth of Norwegian culture and Norwegian literacy.


That seems to strike a nerve these days, as it is supposed to be the primary function of education. Yet more and more kids go to school and come out illiterate, and we're forced to speculate about the reasons.

In the course of stumbling around looking for clues, this long and disturbing article directed me to an extremely influential educational innovator from Brazil (said to be a sort of modern/aka-post-modern Dewey) named Paulo Freire. A champion of the theory that all education is political, his views on education have led to incomprehensible theories like Layered Curriculum, and similar nonsense, and to now-standardized views like of teaching like this educrat gobbledygook on how to teach, um, English:

....our English program also incorporates the dispositions outlined in the university’s conceptual framework, “Realizing the Democratic Ideal.” This concept underpins all teacher education at Illinois State University (Illinois State University Undergraduate Catalog). It emphasizes the importance of moral and intellectual development and is designed to support and enhance the standards and best practices established in each individual discipline. These concepts, discussed as moral and intellectual virtues include:

* Sensitivity toward the varieties of individual and cultural diversity
* Disposition and ability to collaborate ethically and effectively with others
* Reverence for learning and seriousness of personal, professional, and public purpose
* Respect for learners of all ages, with special regard for children and adolescents
* Wide general knowledge and deep knowledge of the content to be taught
* Knowledge and appreciation of the diversity among learners
* Understanding what affects learning and appropriate teaching strategies
* Interest in and ability to seek out informational, technological, and collegial resources
* Contagious intellectual enthusiasm and courage enough to be creative

“Realizing the Democratic Ideal,” combined with the five identified strands of English Education— teaching and learning for democracy, multiculturalism and respect for diversity, reader response and process methods of teaching writing, along with teacher-research and reflective practice—represent best practices in the field and reflect the knowledge base and philosophy of education we provide for our students who are preparing to be secondary language arts educators. This strong and flexible foundation for the preparation of future teachers is idealistic and informed enough by the scholarship of literacy to set the highest standards for the teaching of English. At the same time, it is firmly rooted in the practices, struggles, and issues that occupy practicing teachers of English and language arts today. Through this blend of resources, contexts, and orientations we teach our candidates what it means to serve the needs of all students and prepare them to be critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and active and informed participants in creating schools in which all students can achieve and thrive, as well as a more just society built upon democratic practices and principles.

We've all heard about educational Newspeak, but I've long wanted to know how and where "educators" learn to speak it so, well, fluently (for lack of a better word).

I found an utterly fascinating approach to the teaching of teachers, which comes from a standard, apparently non-controversial textbook. The whole thing is so appalling that it should be read by everyone curious about what passes for education. Much as I'd like to quote the whole damned thing, space won't allow it, but I can't resist a few excerpts. This leading educrat is a proponent of a theory called Culturally Responsive Teaching -- a rehash of Freire's doctrines:

WE BELIEVE THAT CULTURALLY responsive teaching (CRT) for ethnically diverse students should be a fundamental feature of teacher preparation and classroom practice. CRT involves using the cultures, experiences, and perspectives of African, Native, Latino, and Asian American students as filters through which to teach them academic knowledge and skills. Other critical elements of culturally responsive teaching are unpacking unequal distributions of power and privilege, and teaching students of color cultural competence about themselves and each other.

NOTE: Lest anyone think that I'm wasting time on irrelevant, fringe, or marginal theories, "Culturally Responsive Teaching" is a major deal. One web site -- an important one, developed and maintained by The Education Alliance which lists numerous, prestigious "partner organizations" -- even designed this cool logo for it!


Isn't that cool? (It sure is, so let's get back to the important work at hand!)

Anyway, anticipating resistance from "overwhelmingly European American, middle-class, monolingual, White females who have had little sustained and substantive interactions with people of color," leading CRT advocate Geneva Gay goes on to offer advice on overcoming "barriers" to the wholesale embrace of "CRT":

The third barrier to preservice teachers genuinely thinking critically about race-related issues in education is their claims of benevolent liberalism, and guilt over past acts of oppression, injustice, and marginalization. They may profess commitment to promoting educational equity based on their newly found awareness, but they do not think deeply about the implications and consequences of this knowledge for changing their personal and professional behaviors. As discussions about cultural and racial diversity move beyond general awareness toward specific instructional actions that challenge prevailing conventions, resistance is increasingly apparent. It is signaled by statements such as, "Yes, but students of color have to live and work in the U.S., so they need to learn to be American like everybody else," and "If I teach them according to their cultural styles, won't the White kids be discriminated against, and won't I be lowering my educational standards?" As with awareness, many prospective teachers assume that feeling guilty about racism is sufficient to make them worthy promoters of equality and social justice in their classroom instruction. They do not examine the causes, motivations, depths, and manifestations of their guilt, least of all how to move beyond it, and to ensure that the guilt-provoking actions are not perpetuated in the future.

Some teacher education students even believe that race and racism are non-issues, and are no longer problems in U.S. society and schools. As one student remarked, "Why shouldn't we teach the Western canon; it's the truth." Individuals like this are incredibly naive, do not understand the academic racism and cultural hegemony embedded in statements like this, or are in total denial of their existence. This leads to assumptions that whatever racial problems in schools and society that existed in the past have been resolved. They evoke notions of color-blindness and universality as the standard for how to engage with diverse students. These preservice teachers do not interrogate the sources of their standards of universality, what they mean when operationalized in classroom practice, or how color-blindness may conflict with some other educational principles, such as maximizing human potential, and using students' prior knowledge in teaching new information and skills. One of our major goals in helping teacher education students develop multicultural critical consciousness is to understand how these beliefs and related behaviors are cultural determinations and, when translated into practice, are discriminatory to students who do not share the teachers' values and beliefs.

There's much more, and as I said, it's a gold mine of bullshit. I was astonished by it, and much as I hate to bore my readers by subjecting them to educrat gobbledygook, I don't think its relevance can be minimized. I think this stuff borders on being out and out brainwashing, and if it's what teachers are being taught, I'm worried that education will be rendered meaningless. That "overcoming illiteracy" will be translated as "overcoming cultural hegemony" that places a value on such "artificial constructs" as "reading" and "writing."

I mean, what if illiteracy is just as valuable as literacy?

Can't we all just be culturally responsive?

MORE: Anyone who assumes illiteracy is not a problem should read these statistics:

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 42 million adult Americans can't read; 50 million can recognize so few printed words they are limited to a 4th or 5th grade reading level; one out of every four teenagers drops out of high school, and of those who graduate, one out of every four has the equivalent or less of an eighth grade education.

According to current estimates, the number of functionally illiterate adults is increasing by approximately two and one quarter million persons each year.

And if you liked that, you'll love the doctrine of invented spelling:
Wilde and other theorists of "invented spelling" envision a new spelling curriculum that would shift from a "focus on error to a focus on creation." The idea is that kids should be free to misspell words - invent their own spelling - without having their spelling corrected or having the teacher tell them the correct spelling. This hands-off approach, we are assured, increases the writer's freedom and cuts down on frustration. This is far more enlightened, Wilde explains, than the "usual view of spelling as either right or wrong," an archaic conception that has been "replaced by a growing understanding of why children produced a particular spelling."
Lest anyone think "invented spelling" is just for kids, I'm here to tell you it's becoming an adult activity.

Oh yes.

And to promote and assist in these brave new endeavors, organizations purportedly devoted to such things as spelling and literacy are busy doing things like picketing spelling bees. Elitist bigots who still believe that literacy somehow involves spelling had best brace themselves for a shock.

(Well, at least it came to this elitist bigot as a shock.)

We must make spelling easier by simply changing the language.

The following example comes from an actual doctoral thesis posted by the Simplified Spelling Society:

...It is concluded that a Surplus-cut spelling wud clarify the morfemic and fonemic structure of th English languaj and be minimly disruptive as a practicabl step towards an optiml English orthografy. All categories of readr wud benefit by spelling modifications that increasd predictrability and reveald th underlying structure of th orthografy mor consistently.

Furthr cross-cultural studies of th eficiency of riting systems for other languages can clarify useful features for orthografy that may be incorporated into our own spelling, and others may be workd out from fullr knolej of th psychoneurolojicl processes involvd in comunication by languaj. Some posibl directions for orthografy ar discussd. Reserch in spelling design also offers a point of entry towards solving some of th puzls that stil tantalise scolars in th cognitiv psycolojy of reading.

Th goal is Chomsky's concept of 'optimum orthografy' (1970), - defined as th writn representation most favorabl for readers in a particular languaj, and th best fit to meet the diferent and sometimes incompatibl needs and abilities of users and lerners, readrs and riters, nativ-speakrs and th forin-born, th bright and th dul, th norml and th handicapd, humans and machines, while maintaining access to our heritaj of print (bakwards compatibility).

I like satire, but I'm afraid that's not what it is. Not when I see the name "Chomsky." (And any lingering hopes I had that this might be satire were dashed when I read more from the same author.)

Can't we put these divisive concepts like literacy and illiteracy behind us?

If u dont like it fuk u.

posted by Eric on 06.22.05 at 07:27 AM


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In a language with so many homonyms, differentiated spellings are not only possible but necessary to distinguish meaning. Furthermore, the language as it is has many aids to learning; if one makes a study of word roots then one can figure out the meaning of a word from its components.

Of course, many people are not taught to figure out parts of speech, let alone word roots from Latin or Greek.

And as already stated, there are so many regional differences in pronunciation that spelling by sound would be a ghastly mess. (Not to mention a few migraines the first time I saw my friend writing about the "wooves.") It might be interesting to see what it would do to British English— Worchester becoming "Wooster" and Chomondeley becoming "Chumley."

B. Durbin   ·  June 22, 2005 2:15 PM

I'm against changing or simplifying the spelling of English words. Our style of spelling is of the things I love about the English language. B. Durbin makes an excellent point about homonyms. I'm against this "progressive, permissive, regressive" education, as H. L. "Bill" Richardson put it.

Fourth grade was when I discovered Egypt, too. In the library I saw a book Stories From Old Egypt. I loved the stories, above all the holy myth of Osiris and Isis, and I loved the style of Egyptian art. I loved the Gods and the Goddesses of Egypt, and then I began to explore other mythologies as well, Sumerian, Aztec, Hawaiian, Hindu, Japanese, Norse.... I loved their unique styles. Some time in junior high school, I discovered a book on sub-Saharan African kingdoms. The one that sticks in my mind was Benin, ruled by the Oba. I loved the style of their art, too. But Egypt has always remained my favorite. I have loved Egypt the way most other Westerners love the Greeks and/or the Romans.

You wrote:
"....Seems that after the Romans took over the place [Egypt] went into decline...."

Actually, I must say that Egypt had begun to decline long before that, long before even Alexander. Akhenaton's blasphemies weakened Egypt, of course, militarily as well as spiritually, but even before that the Hyksos invasion (which was also a revolution) changed the character of Egypt's high culture, ending the Middle Kingdom and initiating the New Kingdom (Empire. The New Kingdom stands in relation to the Middle and Old Kingdoms exactly as Rome stands in relation to Greece, as Chin stands to Chou, as America stands to the rest of Europe. No civilization succumbs to internal invasion unless it has already been weakened spiritually from within.

Which brings me to my next point. I am ethnocentric (as Western imperialist warmonger) and proud of it. I believe that, within the West, the history of the West should be taught first and foremost, if for no other reason than that it is our culture, the culture we live in, the culture our ancestors built. Charlemagne may not be important to a Bantu, but he is important to us, as a Bantu chief is not. If I were a Chinaman, I would want the history of the Middle Kingdom (as Chinese call China) to be taught first and foremost in all Chinese schools, as it always was, at least until the Communists took over, and the histories of the various barbarians (and we of the West are still barbarians to a Chinaman) only second. The Greeks taught their elites the history of their own culture, centering on their own city-states, and the barbarians (and my own Norse ancestors were certainly barbarians to them) only secondarily if at all. The Egyptians. likewise, taught their elites the history of Egypt above all. The Mayas, the Aztecs, Benin, and every other culture the same.

A culture rises by having faith in itself and in its Gods. When it loses that faith, that is when it declines. Political Correctness will destroy us.

An excellent source on Norse prehistory, particularly of Norse religion, is H. R. Ellis Davidson's Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.

B. Durbin:

Excellent points also about roots and local pronunciations as well. Your whole comment. Didn't mean to slight you.

Good GAWD! The whole thing makes me sick. Sick I tell ya.

I live in Philly and homeschool my kids. Public education SUCKS.

Great post. I found you via Steven at Republic, Madam. Love your site.

Monica-Philadelphia   ·  June 23, 2005 11:13 PM

English spelling could use some help, but, meshing well with the history thread, don't those idiots know how it got this way?

Assuming we could "clean it up" somehow (a Constitutional Ammendment is the only thing I can think of that would work), it would quickly degenerate into a mess again.

The most irregular verb in any language is also the most used: to be. It's not an accident.

Language changes very quickly, we just don't notice. Look up "contact" in a pre-1920 dictionary. "Impact" is the current word. It also changes very slowly. We have contractions and the ampersand (&) because of calligraphers, for goodness sake!

Here's a plan: Let's replace all dipthongs with new letters! "ch" could become "Ч", "sh" could become "Ш". Or better yet, how about a letter for each word! Oh, wait. That's been done. (Just in case anyone thinks Russian has no dipthongs, the English "j" is a dipthong "ДЖ" - basically "dzh")

mrsizer   ·  June 29, 2005 9:40 PM

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