Education, Politics, and Cultural Identity

No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.

First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):

1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.

The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”

But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.

When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.

This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.

One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.

Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.

So it’s easier said than done.

I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80’s and early 90’s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?

Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.

A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)

Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.

This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.


  1. Multicuturalism is incoherent. Justice is not a divisible concept. The fundamental notions of justice in Islamic and modern Western societies are profoundly different. Modern Western liberalism and Islam are two scorpions in a bottle.

    • I don’t think multiculturalism in any manifestation must be *universal*. Pluralism doesn’t necessitate abandoning any standard of cultural valuation, although certain strains of it certainly seem to lean that way.

      • If multiculturalism isn’t universal, then you are back in the business of judging cultures and choosing good and bad ones. The whole point of multicuturalism is to avoid labeling some cultures better than other ones.

        • Is it? I’m not 100% sure about that. I think that’s the way a lot of multiculturalism gets practiced, but I’m not sure that a total lack of value judgment is a necessary part of the process, any more than terrorism is a necessary part of Islam (which, I take it, is not the case).

          • Really? Tell you what…write and publish an article in which you label some cultures as superior, some as good, and some as bad. I would be really interested in seeing the reaction.

  2. The current situation in Iraq is an indication of what can happen in a country where the fundamental concepts of justice differ. The happiest and most high-trust countries in the world tend to be highly homogeneous countries like the Scandanavian countries.

  3. Managing diversity is always difficult. Of course highly homogeneous countries like Iceland and Japan are rare but these kinds of countries are lucky.

  4. In the early part of the 20th century, the American school system was largely responsible for Americanization…taking a diverse group of immigrants and teach them to be Americans.

    The difference is, back then, what it meant to be “American” was non-controversial, and the immigrants wanted to assimilate. Today, we can no longer agree on a shared culture, and many if not most immigrants no longer want to assimilate, and instead seek to import their former cultures.

  5. cranberry says:

    There are as many cultures as there are Americans. Even Americans of Italian descent can disagree on cultural practices. After a generation, our “cultures” become “sentimental practices.”

    Among teenagers, Goths or Emos are practicing their preferred cultures more assiduously than the “received” practices school leaders might think they’re transmitting.

    So, some of the sturdy cultures Americans practice and self-identify with are: Geeks (Band __, Theater __), Stoners, Emos, Goths, Preppies, Jocks, (Football, Hockey, LaxBros), Brains. We reliably transmit _those_ cultures to our children through the schools. Given the enthusiastic adoption of social media by schoolchildren, I expect those identities to remain.

    • One might think that a “culture” is a more flexible construct than something that can be destroyed by simple disagreement. One might even think that a “cutlure of one” (if there really are as many cultures as people) is no real culture at all, and that to exist as a culture is to exist as a shared, necessarily vague set of practices and values.

      I wrote a little bit about this last year, arguing that the level of “fit” a culture must have to its constituents might depend on the size of the group:

      As for your overall point, I think I agree. Kids go to school, and join a “tribe”. They learn to be members of those tribes, and they teach the new generations, world without end. But those are very specific sorts of culture, with a *very* tight fit. (Compare between schools, and you will soon see that the Johnson High Goths are a very different sort of Goth than the McAullife High Goths.)

  6. Ruth Joy says:

    Sine the days of the American Founding, it was hoped and expected that a set of shared values would be taught in schools. The kind of thing Franklin was talking about when he said that we have “a republic, if you can keep it.” The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was passed even before the new Constitution and stated that education and religion were necessary if the republic was to survive. So the idea of the importance of a shared set of values–even in pluralistic society like ours– has been around a long time. The problem as has been noted here is that we (well, not me actually) are reluctant to say that some values are more worthy than others. I think the idea of how thick or thin the teaching of cultural values should be in government schools is a tricky one. One thing that almost 50 years of studies have shown is that kids in Catholic schools– and more recently kids in school choice programs– score higher in citizenship, no matter how it is defined or measured. Which suggest that a thick or particularist or comprehensive world view has something to offer.
    And were can we find your dissertation?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    As to which cultures get to reproduce: “they all do”.
    Don’t think so. There are conflicts.The place of women in society, for example, is one venue for conflict. There’s the Middle Eastern/Muslim/Arab culture versus the western culture. Neither would be happy with compromise, and neither wants to lose. The only alternative is to have their spaces and our spaces with the larger culture making at least informal accomodation. It’s happening in Europe.

    • If current trends in Europe are not reversed then the present conflicts in the Middle East are Europe’s future.

    • “The only alternative is to have their spaces and our spaces with the larger culture making at least informal accomodation. It’s happening in Europe”

      But it isn’t happening in the Middle East, is it? Or anywhere else with a Muslim majority. Islam will not accomodate other will either subjugate them or eradicate them.

      Make no mistake..their long term plan for Europe is not accomodation…it is conquest.

  8. Okay, I’m with you so far. What’s your proposal to explicitly address it?

    I think you were there: everyone agrees to math, and reading, but once you say reading, then what. Most states have standards that are reasonably accepted. The culture warriors, I agree, will always care about HHTM and “intelligent design.” But most folks are not battling the book choices too much.

    Isn’t the BIG problem that even when there is agreement on what to teach (which feels like 95+% of the time), we’re bad at getting kids to learn it?

    • I would word it differently than you, but yes, student and parent effort and motivation are indeed the controlling variable in education today.