“Daddy, what are we?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, where are we from? Are we Italian, Irish, Jewish; you know, like that?”
“Well, we’re from here; we’re Americans.”
“Daddy!!! What am I going to say in school?”
More than once, my now nine year old daughter and I have had this conversation. I think I understand my daughter’s frustration. After all, for the better part of my grammar school and high school life, I knew who I was – a Catholic and Irish. But, definitely, more Catholic than Irish. My sisters and I can still joke that the reason why we went to parochial school rather than public school was that only “public” children went to those schools. We had not a clue what such “public” schools might be like; but we knew they weren’t Catholic.
Being Catholic meant getting up two hours early on school days and going to Mass everyday for weeks on end; it meant becoming an altar boy and dreaming of the sacred power vested in the priesthood; it meant seriously considering the priesthood until the end of grammar school. Being Catholic meant real fear when you went to confession on Saturday – even though the worst you had done was inconsequential.
Being Irish was not an everyday, living and breathing, thing. Being Irish meant watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on television; it meant being part of an annual school play where all the children dressed in green; it meant, for my sisters, taking dancing lessons where they learned jigs and reels (but stopped dancing them soon enough). Being Irish meant going to Rockaway (a beach-front peninsula, inside New York City limits, frequented by those of Irish origin or ancestry) for summer vacation once or twice and learning there that an old family friend had one of those school custodian jobs that allowed him to be almost rich. Apparently, the “public” schools were good for something.
Once I stopped being Catholic, it was not too long before I, more or less absentmindedly, stopped feeling very Irish. Giving up the Catholic part was hard; the Irish barely an after-thought. (Giving up whiteness came much later still.)
But, even before then, when I went way off to the Bronx, from Brooklyn, for college, I cringed whenever someone referred to anyone as “BIC” – variously Bronx or Brooklyn Irish Catholic. They intended it to mean someone who was sexually timid and alcoholically bold. Most of those who were so labelled resented it, but, as time went on, I heard more than a few proudly claim the label for themselves. My daughter, in spite of her dismay at us not being anything useful in school, would not know what to make of “BIC.”
Let me go back to the beginning of this story. My daughter’s questions seldom come from her own desires to know or to understand – unlike her questions about the origins of the human species. She really does want to know “Who was the first person?” and “Where did they come from?” Her questions about our social identity come from school. Her questions come from a school which explicitly committed to providing a multi-cultural education for a diverse student body. They are usually part of an assignment – from a teacher attempting to discover, with the children, the varied roots of the kids in the class. The places of family origin, back a generation or two, are located on maps; family trees are constructed; biographies are written. How could I object?
But, object I have. Earlier this year, upon learning that my daughter would be studying immigration in fourth grade, I told her teacher, someone who I’ve known for many years, that I didn’t like the theme, that it misconstrued the essentials of America and that it placed the black children in the class in a profoundly disadvantaged place. Too many of those black children would have no tales of immigrant suffering and triumph to share with their classmates. The teacher was, I think, genuinely surprised by my objections. She reminded me that the school traditionally celebrated Black History Month by studying topics associated with the black struggle for freedom. I wasn’t satisfied. I suggested that the theme of “Movement” might allow her to explore some of the same topics without as many problems. To my pleasant surprise, the eventual class theme was revised to include forced migration along with immigration.
Since then, my daughter has indeed written an autobiography which includes information on my grandparents’ origins in the Irish countryside. But, she has also written a report on Frederick Douglass and interpreted his escape from slavery as a form of migration. By any measure, it’s much better than what I was doing in fourth grade – or, for that matter, through much of my formal education through sixteen years of Catholic schools and colleges.
When I went to college, I had never read an assigned text by or about black folks in America. In my senior year in high school, I had independently read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and had written a review essay for the high school literary magazine. In college, I took more than twenty required courses in history, theology, philosophy, art, literature. Although we spent a good deal of time exploring the origins of civilization in the Near and Middle East and in Egypt, mostly we re-traced an imagined history of Europe – a lot of emphasis on the achievements of high culture and inter-national conflict, hardly any on social conflict. As I recall it, I don’t think we were so much encouraged to see Egypt, for example, as a European civilization. Instead, we were encouraged to see that Europe had wisely borrowed from the great achievements of those other civilizations. At the same time, we didn’t spend a moment on the civilizations of the rest of Asia. I read Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides; I read the Old and the New Testament; I read Kant, Hegel and Marx. In many ways, I was well educated. But, I didn’t read any American literature. I didn’t study any American history. For that matter, I didn’t study any Irish history either, although I did read Yeats and Joyce.
As with others of my generation, events had their own demands to make on my academic development. In 1968, as rebellions shook the streets of America’s cities and as Black Power became a household expression, some friends and I participated in an uncredited Black History seminar with a sympathetic history professor. I don’t remember all that we read but it included Stanley Elkins’ Slavery and C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Legacy of Jim Crow. But, in spite of this, I left college remarkably ignorant of much that I now hold to be essential. I knew virtually nothing of the pre-Columbian American civilizations. My only knowledge of Reconstruction consisted of grammar school phrases about carpetbaggers and scalawags.
So, why am I complaining? After all, my daughter already knows more than a little about Frederick Douglass. What’s so bad about schools fostering an appreciation of the different habits and customs of people from different parts of the world? Well, nothing is wrong about that – unless some of those habits and customs are themselves objectionable or if the appreciation of some results in the obscurance of others. (Last year, I saw a movie on videotape about a Romanian war criminal who had emigrated to America and was all involved in the appreciation of things Romanian here in the United States. His college-educated daughter could not imagine what the celebration had to do with the crime and, more important, could not imagine him being the criminal.) What we need to talk about is not so much appreciation or celebration but rather critical examination. After all, how do we know if a habit or custom is objectionable or not?
Too often, the multi-cultural education being promoted across American schools relies on a superficial notion of culture. Ralph W. Nicholas put the matter well for me when he wrote that culture: “refers to all the habits, patterns, and ways of thinking that human beings acquire as an extragenetic inheritance.” (emphasis added) Given the preoccupation with studying multiple cultures through the prism of continental or national origin, it seems to me that many children and older students are being encouraged to understand culture as a genetic inheritance. Immigration is, after all, one of the most common and most common sensical of the ways in which the diversity of the American people is described and understood. It allows teachers and students to appreciate how difficult is the adjustment to new ways. But, as a way of understanding America, it is deeply flawed.
Professor Sylvia Wynter of Stanford University has written a provocative and challenging critique of the California social studies textbooks which were adopted within the past several years (“Do Not Call Us Negros:” How “Multicultural Textbooks Perpetuate the Ideology of Racism”). In one chapter, she takes the textbook treatment of New Orleans as an example of the shortcomings of a pluralistic, immigrant-oriented approach to the study of America. The textbook authors had written:
New Orleans is made up of people from many backgrounds. This kind of culture is called pluralism, or a pluralistic culture. In a pluralistic culture, life is exciting. People work, join together, struggle, learn and grow.
The concept of a “pluralistic” culture then enables an ethnic subset of Immigrant EuroAmericans (the French Cajuns) to be mis-equated with one of the three founding races/cultures of the United States, that of Black Africa. This then enables the text to represent Dixieland Jazz — the major cultural-syncretic expression of the United States’ popular (non-middle class) culture created out of the conflictual coming together of the “inherited cultural baggages” of both the European immigrants and the peoples of Africa brought here as slaves — as being simply another element like that of the string bands of the French-Canadian settlers (the Cajuns) who came to North America in the 1700s. …
This pluralistic Ideology represents the Immigrant issues (such as the experience of ethnic prejudice or anti-immigrant nativism) as the central issues of American history, and to reduce non-Immigrant issues to being merely “ethnic” subsets of its generic class ……
Consequently the New Orleans’ section of Chapter One is complemented with a section titled “The Immigrant Experience.” Not only are all the peoples of New Orleans (including those of Black New Orleans whose origin was in the Anglo-American slave trade, and therefore, in the Middle Passage) represented as Immigrants, but the students are asked in this section to “interview immigrants” to the United States so that this can “help you understand the dreams and hopes that built America;” and can understand their many stories as the stories of America itself. There is no room here for the fears, the despair that also built it. For DuBois’ “sorrow songs,” the Blues. The “trails of tears” of the Indigenous peoples, their non-Immigrant dreams.
I have not said it nearly as well to my daughter, nor to her teacher.
The focus on immigration as the central category of historical study of America usually results in the understanding of “making it” as the central economic category and of small businesses as the central economic institution. In New York City, children visit neighborhood shops and restaurants and interview the shopkeepers – why did they come, how hard have they worked, what kind of food is that. But, they walk by streets with walls covered with graffiti; they walk by teenagers with pants hanging down upon their ankles; they walk by schoolyards with basketballs bouncing. But, they are not asked to interview the teenagers – to find out why.
Last April, I visited San Francisco for the first time. On the highway in from the airport, the first thing I noticed was the stylized writing of tags on the pillars of the overpasses. How did the kids of San Francisco learn from the kids of New York how to write their tags in the same way? Or did the kids in New York learn from the kids in San Francisco? Or did they both learn from kids in Chicago? Put simply, sauerkraut, lasagna and bagels do not a culture make. Basketball (played a certain way), clothes (worn in a certain style) and lyrics (sung in a certain rhythm) do so much more.
Within the predominant multi-cultural paradigm, the cultures that children are encouraged to appreciate are, or will be, marginal, to the world they will live in as adults. That world is being made, not out of nostalgia for customs of lands far away, but of events and personalities close by. And the culture that has made America what it is and what it might be is not the accumulation of more or less equal contributions by various immigrant groups as such.
All those who have been here and all those who are here now have been part of what we are and might become. But, we need to be clear about what we are and what we want to become. The characteristic practices of multi-cultural education, as evidenced both in the California textbooks and my daughter’s study of immigration, suggest that we have accomplished more than we have and that there is less to do than there is. Multi-cultural education tends to discount the significance of present-day oppression or, if it does acknowledge it, tends to present it as oppression without oppressors. I may be wrong. For example, it may be that, in some multi-cultural education environments, students are encouraged to examine not only the hardships endured by European immigrants, but also their relative willingness to become white in America.
I would suggest that multi-cultural education is a project of defeat. Those who are in the forefront of efforts to multi-culturalize the curriculum are, often enough, intellectual and personal products of the upsurge of the 1960’s. But, they have abandoned hope in the utopian desire of the 1960’s and have substituted, for that desire, the social/political/ educational equivalent of managed care. More than anything else, that utopian desire was given initial expression by the black struggles of the 50’s and 60’s. And it struck deep into the minds and hearts of white people. There was a time when thousands of white households were being rocked by debates between children and parents over the issue of race. But, I would guess, not too much of that goes on now. The abandonment of the struggle over race has been fueled by a conviction that those considered white are not, after all, capable of joining unequivocally in the fight for black liberation and their own freedom.
It was the struggle over race that was the defining issue in the large and small episodes of the 1960’s. I played a part in the battles of that era too small to include in a footnote. But, I am glad that I did. It was not always easy – arguing when no one else appeared to have the same point of view. It was not always easy when relatives would tell me of the time when “No Irish Need Apply” – as if they had experienced discrimination because of their Irishness the day before. I’m glad that I didn’t have too much of an appreciation for their Irishness because, to me, it seemed then, and mostly still now, inseparable from their whiteness.
The multi-culturalist vision has a limited social goal – people should learn to live and let live. But, what the proponents of the multi-culturalist creed often neglect to understand that the understanding necessary for living and let living is premised on a continued complicity with the reproduction of black inequality. So long as that inequality is left intact, it is unlikely that multi-cultural education will do all that much towards changing the persistent refusal of many thousands of young blacks to participate enthusiastically in school. And it is unlikely that multi-cultural education will do all that much towards changing the common sense views of whites, no matter the part of the globe they or their ancestors came from.