What Is an American Education?

Richard Rodriguez, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, is author of "Hunger of Memory" (Godine) and of "The Protestant Reformation," soon from Viking

I am thinking of travel. The difference between a traveler and the nomad is a permanent address. The traveler takes his point of view on tour. The same metaphor has often enough been applied to an education. The student acquires a point of view, he then applies his point of view, his method, to a wider experience.

What is an American education?

The argument is between those who think education should teach that Americans are of one purpose and those who believe that education should teach that Americans are of many purposes but tolerant among ourselves. The debate can be observed as shuttling between right and left, but curiously so. For it is the right urging a communal curriculum, while the arguments for individualism--the protestant arguments--come from the left.

The Study Commission on Global Education, which last month issued its report ("The United States Prepares for Its Future: Global Perspectives in Education") would probably like to be perceived as brooding over all. However, in emphasizing the need for "global perspective," the commission lists to the left. Members do not wonder (as traditionalists would) whether American students can trace a path back to Thomas Jefferson. The commission is troubled that American students are becoming "global illiterates," unprepared for an international future. The members recommend that the nation's students, from first grade to high school, confront the foreign, learn histories, values, tongues.

The commission consists of the sort of people who can be said to inhabit official America, including a state governor, a New York foundation officer and academic bureaucrats of the first water--deans and college presidents. Several are authors of their own education reports. These are people who attend meetings. These are people who fly the redeye from here to there and who communicate to persons sitting next to them through microphones or by memo. The commission is supported by grants from Exxon and from the Ford Foundation and from Rockefeller.

These are people out of touch. Their aim, they say, is to lend support to "pioneers" of Global Perspective Education--toilers on the earth--with a "continuous flow of suggestions." I doubt if they can have seen a classroom for many a long year, so unfettered is their optimism about what can happen there.

A copy of the report costs $10 and I recommend it to anyone interested in what policy-makers and foundations are up to. From its board room, presumably in outer space, the commission beams platitudes: "Teachers should bring to the classroom from their collegiate experiences a broad but integrated education that encourages curiosity about connections among the classroom, the school, and the world at large."

The problem is real. The study commission reminds us how the world beyond our borders is becoming "increasingly interrelated." And within, our country is "increasingly multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic and mobile." America is more complex than ever, the world is getting smaller. So what is needed, concludes the commission, is not necessarily a new curriculum but the reformation of existing courses "in global perspective." A new curriculum, in other words.

Europe fades from memory. The commission casts its insidiously bland eye toward new continents. At the high school level, for example, there should be "in-depth study of at least two other cultures, including a non-European culture, in addition to that of the United States . . . ." The objective is to prepare for Tomorrowland.

Few words issue from the commission's 52-page report with more frequency or with less precision than does the word "diversity." The dilemma of our national diversity becomes, with a little choke on logic, the solution: American educators "must understand diversity." "Appreciate diversity." "Deal constructively with diversity." Pay "greater attention to . . . diversity . . . around the world and within the United States."

The Study Commission for Global Education is headed by Clark Kerr, ex-president of the University of California. The commission has sought a term comparable to the chimerical "multiversity"--Kerr's famous coinage for the university of the '60s--a term that would at the same time account for the current condition of the American primary classroom and justify the lack of any singular vision of what a classroom ought to be. Diversity is a liquid noun. Diversity admits everything, stands for nothing.

I do not agree that the primary purpose of early education is to teach diversity. I believe something closer to the reverse--that education's primary purpose, its distinguishing obligation, is to foster communality. It is in the classroom that the child comes to learn a public identity. The child learns the skills of numbers and words crucial to public survival, and learns to put on a public self, apart from family or ethnic community.

As education begins, diversity is the enemy of the classroom. Diversity chafes and boogies and blows through the neighborhoods; diversity (the knowledge that I am different from the gringos ) is handed down by grandmothers. The classroom is opposite. The classroom is a social fiction, it teaches us that we are communal. As the church is always the last holdout against popular piety, the last to validate the miraculous, so, traditionally, the classroom is skeptical, conservative, admitting only what must be admitted. Only slowly will the academy notice riotous changes outside its door.

Because America is an immigrant society, dynamic, changing, the classroom is always adding to its common text. Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony are inducted into textbooks much as they are canonized by the U.S. Postal Service, not as figures of diversity but as persons who implicate our entire society.

To acknowledge that our national culture changes is not to repudiate the notion of a common culture. I believe that there is a thread, a column, a genius--use what metaphor you will--connecting Greek, Judeo-Christian, Western European thought with wars and kings and dates, an intention, or precise accident, that has shaped America. Such an intention, such an accident, must be what the classroom is prepared to convey.

Americans are no longer aware of much in common. It has been the political right that has most often approved the passing of "values" in education. But the feminist and the ethnic left have as often sought to cleanse, even to redeem history, by reworking the canon. They seek "role models" from history and exemplary lessons. History becomes a lesson unwilling to distinguish between the importance of writer Aphra Behn and printer Benjamin Franklin.

I submit that America is not a tale for sentimentalists. I read the writings of 18th Century white men who powdered their wigs and who kept slaves, because these were men who shaped the country that shapes my life. I claim them. I am brown and of Mexican ancestors, one generation into this country. I claim Thomas Jefferson as a cultural forefather.

In 1987 the Study Commission on Global Education reminds: "By around the year 2000, one out of every three Americans will be nonwhite and they will cover a broader socioeconomic range than ever before." Closer to home: "California's elementary-school population is over 50% 'minority' . . . . " The day on which I type these words the morning paper announces that Berkeley will become one of the first school districts in the nation to require "World Culture/Ethnic Studies" as a replacement for a "history class that focuses on Western Europe."

The Study Commission on Global Education is not what you'd call a radical band. Nevertheless the commission has purchased, with foundation money, a remnant of the radical '60s--precisely the notion of diversity. In my opinion the commission betrays American education. We don't need diversity in the American classroom, we need uniformity.

There are influential educators today, and I have met them, who say that the purpose of American education is to instill in children a pride in their separate ancestral pasts and their home languages. There are university students, and I have met them, who scorn the notion of a shared "Western Civilization" course.

The study commission allows that it wants both, uniformity and diversity. Yes, there must be instruction in American history, geography, manners. There should also be a juxtaposition of the national with the international. The question, of course, is how?

It seems to me there is at least a question of sequence. In order to judge, to evaluate, to reject or to admire, the student first needs a point of view. Not until a student comprehends his own culture and history will he be in a position to confront the foreign with any sophistication.

We read in the newspapers now that American students are unable to pin Japan on a map. I infer that the greater problem is that American students are unable to make any kind of assessment of Japanese collectivism or Soviet socialism or American individualism. I suspect the triumph of the adolescent shrug.

From the mid-'60s, one senses a deflation of American self-esteem. Americans are no longer confident that we are good; we think we are no better than many another place and time. Which perhaps advances us toward a healthier sense of universal failing or of original sin. The pity is that we relinquish a reasonable pride in what America has accomplished.

In the 19th Century, as America became an immigrant country, necessity gathered generations of European immigrants in big-city classrooms. Assimilation was an honorable achievement, comparable, in my mind, with opening the plains, building bridges. Should we expect less of our own age because the faces in our classrooms are no longer of Europe?

Are we prepared to teach our students that there are values and institutions and customs here that are different, even better, then those in other countries? Are we prepared to help the student arrive at a sense of values?

Perhaps we are not. Very likely we are not. Perhaps we have lost too much faith in our purpose. And our children know it. Our children will become cultural nomads in the 21st Century. America's greatest cultural export already is a youthful cynicism which is the controlling entertainment of the world.

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