There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog lately, both in the posts and in the comments, about the teaching of values. Most of these discussions have dealt with, if not necessarily middle-class values, at least values taught by middle-class educators—and taught, for the most part, to working-class and poor children, with the idea that these children are short on good values. Today, I want to talk about a different scenario.
I recently happened upon this blog post by “Teacher MRW,” an African-American first-generation-college-graduate teaching in a predominantly white, upper-middle class private school. Inspired by the discussion of moral education generated by my post on the London Riots, MRW writes about the cultural dissonance between herself and her privileged, white students, particularly around conduct, manners, and responsibility. She opens with an anecdote about her attempts to make her students take their hats off when they enter the classroom—a wonderful bit of old-fashioned decorum that my Jesuit-educated 6th-grade history teacher enforced with an iron hand, to my baseball-cap-wearing classmates’ surprise and, at first, consternation, but ultimately half-frightened, half-amused respect. MRW’s demands that “gentlemen take their hats off in class,” as my history teacher used to put it, however, met with only bafflement and resistance, and she finally gave up on the hat battle.
In a lot of ways MRW’s predicament seems to mirror that in which many privileged, white college-graduates (myself included) find themselves, when they take teaching jobs in inner-city public schools. For MRW, however, the gradient of cultural privilege runs in the opposite direction, a fact that drastically alters the terms of the cultural exchange in ways that are frustrating to MRW and far from beneficial to her students. The particulars of the exchange also highlight some of the difficulties facing middle-class education and harken to some of the themes discussed in my last full-length post. (Yes, there are difficulties facing middle-class education; admitting that does not belittle the difficulties facing inner-city education.)
Privileged white educators feel perfectly entitled to hold black and Hispanic inner-city students to privileged white cultural standards, not only in terms of conduct and decorum, but in terms of language, attire, and values. This is seen as being done in the students’ interests—and I’m not questioning that; I think it really is in their interests, for the most part. The ability to speak standard English and the habit of practicing good manners will open doors for these students. Likewise, teaching them to value education and intellectual development and (with some important caveats) to aspire to a college degree and a middle-class job is likely to create more opportunities in their future and increase their upward mobility. (More on this.)
Faced with the parallel dilemma—a dissonance between her own culture and that of her students—MRW feels no such entitlement. She writes,
I have also learned to temper my reactions when my students fall short in their responsibilities with homework. A soliloquy on the importance of preparing for the future gets lost on them. Having been a first-generation college student, such a speech would have had a significant and heart-felt impact on me. However, given that many of the students I teach are but one of a long sequence of people in their families to have completed college, there really is no use in inflicting that degree of moral shame on them.
The loss here is on both sides. MRW feels compelled to swallow her own values, to accept less from her students than she would demand of herself, and to conform her behavior to their dominant culture. The students, for their part, miss out on powerful character lessons that MRW could have taught them, had she been empowered to do so.
The Anxiety of Influence
Interestingly, MRW seems to recapitulate the values of privileged private-school culture, even in her determination of how to negotiate the interaction between those values and her own: she uses their values to weigh her values against their values. “Inflicting… moral shame” seems a harsh way to describe a teacher’s insistence that students hand in their homework and meet classroom obligations. It is as if MRW is saying that to hold middle-class students accountable in the same manner as one would hold poor, upwardly mobile students accountable is to risk psychologically mangling them. This is the same over-protective logic that guides middle-class parents and schools and leaves middle-class children without the resilience and grit in the face of adversity.
I don’t want to pretend that I can fully understand the difficulty and complexity of MRW’s position. The middle-class educator in an inner-city school is surrounded by middle-class colleagues who share her culture and support her interpretations. When she upholds that culture in the face of her students’ culture, it is as if the whole society stands behind her. MRW, by contrast, is surrounded on all sides by a culture that is not her own. Not only is her students’ culture prevalent within the school, but it is the culture of power within the society, the culture of the dominant class. No wonder, then, that she declines to hold her students to her values.
Some of my readers will no doubt argue that a teacher—no matter what her ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background—has no place enforcing her own cultural values on students who do not share her background. I want to argue that that position is born of that same protective and ultimately misguided philosophy that causes affluent parents and schools to shield children from failure and adversity in all its many forms. It is a philosophy motivated by fear—in this case, the fear of impinging on students’ own values, of forcing them to conform to a set of oppressive, external, adult norms. Such a view is based on a false belief in the fragility of the child and it is counterproductive to its own aims.
If we want children to develop into free-thinking individuals with a strong sense of their own personal values, the last thing we should do is limit their exposure to others’ values. It is precisely through exposure to a wide range of ideas about value, character, morality, and ethics that children obtain the raw materials and the breadth of experience with which to question, analyze, and critique such ideas and, in maturity, to develop their own, well-chosen personal code.
Just as some of the values learned in a ghettoized, blighted community may not best serve the children of that community, some middle-class values may not best serve middle-class kids. The Romantic, permissive child-rearing practices of affluent and middle-class Americans have many advantages, but they have drawbacks too; and a little training in the kind of decorum, discipline, and responsibility that was commonplace in middle-class parenting a hundred years ago will do them good.
Long Live Hat Etiquette
Last week, while I was working on this post, I went to visit a school in East New York, one of the most blighted, ghettoized neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A middle-school boy came into the building ahead of me, and as I entered, I heard the security guard telling him to take his hat off. When I came to her desk to show my ID and sign in, I asked her “Do you tell all the kids to take their hats off as they come in?”
“Yes,” she said. Frankly, she looked a little suspicious: why the heck was I asking? Did I disapprove?
“Cool,” I said. “Good for you.” Now, if only we could get a security guard like that in MRW’s school.
Appendix: Teaching Middle Class Culture to Inner-City Youth
(Return to main text)
(Return to main text)
There are, it’s important to note, two very distinct valences to the argument for the re-enculturation of inner-city students. On the one hand, there is Delpit’s “culture of power” argument: there’s nothing wrong with the students’ home culture, but, in order to succeed in a white-dominated society, they need to learn the mores and subtle cues of white culture; these should not replace the home culture but rather should serve as a tool-set to be taken out and used when needed. On the other hand, there is the older “culture of poverty” argument: most inner-city students, this argument goes, come from unstable homes and crime-ridden neighborhoods; their home culture is consequently blighted, and it should, as much as possible, be replaced with a healthier culture got in school.
Delpit’s argument seems to me unassailable; even students who do choose to live and work within African American communities can benefit from the power and social mobility afforded them by the ability to “code switch.” The “culture of poverty” argument is a combination of right- and wrong-headed interpretations: yes, many inner-city children arrive at school with beliefs and attitudes that arise out of the frustration, fear, anger, and instability of their home and neighborhood; but, it is not always easy for a middle-class educator to distinguish those cultural traits which are the result of poverty and disaffection from those healthier—but, to the educator, still foreign—traits that are indigenous to the student’s ethnic background. The conscientious white, middle-class educator, working in an inner-city school, is thus engaged in a complicated balancing act, attempting to instill new habits and mores without devaluing the home culture, in such a way as to force the child to choose between parent and teacher, between home and school.