The Nation's Pulse

Lessons Learned

When teaching takes a back seat to multicultural dogma.

By 7.16.09

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In a cramped Philadelphia classroom, newly minted teachers and recent college graduates were unpacking. Rather than focusing on their belongings, which were located a few miles away at Temple University, these new teachers were unpacking their privilege --their whiteness, heterosexuality, college education, wealth, and health.

This exercise was part of Teach for America's summer institute -- teacher boot camp -- for new corps members. Moreover, it was the centerpiece of a series called "Diversity, Community and Achievement." However, TFA's commitment to the rigid ideology of multiculturalism stands in the way of teaching students.

Teach for America is a service organization that recruits recent college graduates from every academic discipline with no experience in teaching and places them in struggling school districts for two years of toil. Each lesson is crafted based on how students perform on individual assessments and geared towards a specific objective. This is a critical and effective step in boosting the academic performance of students regardless of their individual level. But contrary to the program's commitment to rigorously researched methods of instruction, highly ideological race and gender theory have worked their way into the TFA curriculum.

After teaching a summer school class, I attended a diversity discussion group with other TFA teachers and they were led by a TFA advisor. Each session focused on a particular topic, but the procedure was clear for each session. We were instructed to avoid "I" statements and those statements which revealed our personal beliefs. Instead, we should employ "people-focused language." During one exercise, we would raise our hand and say "ouch" if we disagreed with a statement. The offended person would offer a reason for the "ouch."

Without fail, each session included some type of crying interlude. Once, an advisor began crying when she revealed that one of the corps members had remarked in frustration, "These kids just don't want to learn." The same sobbing advisor later stated that she was raped and had treated one of her students differently because the student reminded her of her attacker -- the treatment she visited upon that student racked her with guilt. This was the first conversation I ever had with this person.

On another occasion, a young lady broke down while recanting her reluctance to introducing her family to a transsexual friend. She was so sad. How could she be so prejudiced she would hide a friend from her family based solely on her friend's alternative lifestyle? 

At one point, we were asked why we were privileged. Many stated that their privileges included wealth, race, sexual orientation, health, whiteness, or education. For my part, I said I was fortunate to realize that truth was not relative nor subject to my whiteness, income, or college education. This was my first "ouch" offense.

I suggested multiculturalism precluded us from judging a culture different from our own. This meant we could not speak out or even assist Islamic women who were faced with oppressive conditions. A female corps member raised her hand. Others in the circle joined her dissent. How could I bring up the issue? Who am I to pass judgment? That is their culture. I was just asserting my biases.

When leading a 7th grade class for Teach for America, I led a discussion of Richard Connell's classic short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." It tells of the tale of a skilled hunter who, bored with his normal prey, turns to humans. I led the discussion into when it is permissible to kill or go to war. The students were thoughtful when their opinions were challenge. I was proud that when their ideas were challenged, the situation did not arouse their emotions; rather, they contemplated my objections with care.

When can we compromise our values? It was a natural transition to the Jena 6 affair. The staff that day had donned all black with a green ribbon as a show of solidarity for the six Louisiana youths. The ribbons were being distributed in the teachers' lounge. Clad in my khakis, blue shirt, and striped tie, I felt even more isolated from the predominantly black staff.

The room, already cooking, got even hotter. The students' voices and gestures grew tense. When I challenged their beliefs and opinions, their typically respectful and calm responses turned to anger and disdain. The most they could offer was that the victim of the Jena 6 attack "got what was coming to him."

Students rose from the seats, raising voices, departing from the circle created to encourage discussion. I tried giving them all the facts of the matter and following up with probing questions. What responsibility did the six men have? What could have prevented this? What are the lessons for our school? How could we prevent this from happening at our school? Was this a simple schoolyard fight? If so, why did six kids attack one kid? Could it have been premeditated?

My principal, dressed in black, called me into her office. I told her how the discussion had regressed, and how our students deserved discussion, not dogma on the issue. "This could be helpful," she said. She handed me a guide printed by the NAACP.

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About the Author

Ben Van Horrick is a writer living in North Carolina.