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Whose culture matters? Part II

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted on September 27, 2011.

A few weeks ago, I discussed culture in classrooms. While some scholars argue for a core curriculum using a standardized canon, I suggested a focus on student literacy and critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. This week, I address a similar question:  Whose culture matters in neighborhoods?

I have pondered this question often since beginning my academic career. First, as neighborhood-based reforms such as Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) replicate across the country, their successes also raise some questions. In particular, consider HCZ’s Baby College. During this nine-week parenting seminar, parents learn how to read and discipline their children. Anyone versed in early childhood development literature will attest to the value of proper literacy and disciplinary practices. The question I often ask relates to the basic assumptions of the program. How does this program differ from the acculturation programs that occurred at the turn of the 20th century in New York? To be sure, there are differences. But, reformers cannot take for granted that, because they have some technical knowledge, it is the right knowledge.

Second, my dissertation relates to the diversity of cultural beliefs and practices in low-income neighborhoods. As such, I am always asking, “Whose culture matters, and how?” In particular, I investigate the role of culture to education outcomes in the short term and social mobility in the long term.

Renowned French theorist Pierre Bourdieu provides one answer: culture reproduces class positions. In other words, there is a dominant culture, and an individual’s knowledge and deployment of dominant culture will correlate to and maintain his class position. For instance, a teenager from a middle-class family will know to shake someone’s hand at an interview for an internship. Even more, he will know (or his parents will tell him) to apply for an internship rather than work at McDonalds.

Bourdieu’s argument is compelling and controversial. His goal as a theorist was to undress commonly accepted beliefs about society. In the United States, he shows that meritocracy is not the whole story. Although his writing is sometimes long-winded and sometimes confounding, the success of his theoretical argument—which is supported by his popularity—is that, after hearing only a brief description of social and cultural capital, most people will nod their head and murmur something like, “Ok. I get it. That’s interesting.” Not all scholars, however, agree with Bourdieu. If a dominant culture exists, they argue, so too does a non-dominant culture. If you recall my last blog, the argument is similar. Shakespeare is great, but so is Anansi. Why don’t we respect both?

Community cultural wealth is one response to Bourdieu’s singular focus on dominant culture. Each low-income neighborhood, the argument goes, has a unique set of non-dominant cultural practices. In relation to schools, educators ought to build on the capabilities of the students. The concept is particularly useful for developing policies and curriculum for school districts. It is also a response to the deficit-model of schooling. Instead of looking at what students’ lack, let’s look at what they have.

Both perspectives are helpful for understanding culture in neighborhoods; however, I suggest a hybrid solution. Like last week, literacy and critical thinking, reading, and writing are crucial. E.D. Hirsch’s most popular book is entitled, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. In the spirit of Bourdieu, it should probably read, “What Every American Needs to Know to Know to Be Socially Mobile.” Admitting the flaws of dominant culture makes it no less important to success. While not fair, students from non-dominant cultural backgrounds need to be conversant in a number of cultural styles to be successful. As a result, the most successful students are, what Prudence Carter terms, culturally flexible.

We will not solve the culture riddle anytime soon, if ever. The question, “Whose culture matters,” depends on who is asking and who is replying. However, educators can provide students with the literacy skills to read and write in a number of cultural registers.