Biculturalism a code word?

I was engaged in an unexpected, but interesting dialogue today. I’ll explain first why I call it a dialogue. It wasn’t just a discussion, that catch-all term for a wide range of various numbers of people talking. It wasn’t a debate, colloquially known as an argument, though there were two sides. It was two people talking on two sides of an issues, or perhaps two issues, as it was a lopsided dialogue. My other side dialoguer was asking questions in a faintly Socratic mode, but clearly trying to get my understanding of the validity or at least accuracy of her position…well, not position really. I had a position; she had a term that she had a definition for, and it seemed she wanted badly for me to embrace it…Well, really, I think she wanted me to say, ”Oh, I see. I’m wrong; you’re right.” As in my saying, “You don’t need to change what you have been saying or promoting or, for god’s sake, thinking…maybe even believing.” The problem with the dialogue was that I was in a different one than my counterpart. I was saying my belief, although I was sort of working it out as I was going, and I didn’t really care if she agreed, but I did expect her to do the academically honorable thing and agree to disagree. She is, after all, a college instructor, officially if not in practice, and I am too, in practice if not officially—mine being only adjunct.

Here’s what it was all about: newly arrived, acquirers of English in our mixed classroom (English language learners and native English speakers) who will not make eye contact. Her position was that we should develop the students into bi-cultural, bi-lingual individuals so they can succeed in mainstream culture. I can agree with that. She believes that if we have such a student in our class, we should gently and respectfully confront this behavior, statedly, because it will advantage them to know and be able to do this in our culture. We all acknowledge that eye-contact sanctions vary greatly across culture groups, and in many cases are linked to respect. I couldn’t see that bringing this to a student’s attention was my role, and I don’t see how it can be done either gently or respectfully. I’m not about setting up an impression that I, who have some interpersonal power over students to say noting of my culture group membership, devalue one of that student’s cultural standards.

My position was that such behavior, on the part of teachers, is in the category of cutting the hair of American Indian children who had been abducted and imprisoned in 19th century Indian schools to be turned into Americans. It is very different in degree, but I believe it is in the same category of abuse of power to impose one culture on another. It suggests, or may suggest to the student a state of right and wrong, good and bad, in reference to cultures and cultural values. I will not assume the right to do that to another human being.

I might have a conversation with a student of any culture who doesn’t seem to be getting the message from his peers, cultural or intercultural, about acceptable social norms, if two important conditions exist. First, I must have already earned a deep trust of that student, and I mean deep, virtually familial. Second, I must believe that what I am going to advise is truly necessary and in the best interest of the student. I already do this with my generic advice on Standard English and accurate spelling.

Another consideration I have on this subject is that we have as much responsibility for promoting tolerance in those of the mainstream of American culture as we do for preparing those NOT of the mainstream of American culture to thrive in it. Most of our New Americans, as has been the case with American Indians, will never be assimilated, and will never be accepted as bicultural, but will always be viewed as “other.” The same blind chauvinism that expects immigrants to become like the mainstream, will never allow them to do so, because it then redefines the mainstream. As long as one culture dominates American society, that shall be so. So efforts at assimilation and biculturalization appear to me as efforts to bring “aliens” into cultural compliance, thereby affirm the cultural dominance of the mainstream culture.

Now, I think my dialogue counterpart is well-intentioned. I am well-intentioned too, but even though I have been examining where I am in this dominant culture, and particularly where I am as a white man, I must admit that I find new facets and different perspectives that have been as difficult to recognize and realize as air. I make the effort. I intentionally surround myself with the unfamiliar. I still think I’m far from getting it. What must it be like for those who live in a cultural bubble? What what it be like to know you go anywhere, essentially, and do anything and be allowed to be first always? How does traveling as a privilege inform traveling as a refugee? And herein lies my conclusion. By what power do we tell? Telling implies a priory knowledge. What if with respect we strove more to simple ask? Asking implies incompleteness and an openness to becoming complete.

No, I guess biculturalism isn’t a code for assimilation. It is perhaps an effort to use language to escape the shame of assimilation, but they are only words. I think a better starting point than renaming an assumption of right is in respectful questions that seek to learn what is right. By learning we better and empower ourselves with our knowledge and understanding of ourselves through understanding others. By learning we show others the road to self-betterment and self-empowerment, and showing is better than telling. I want to say something pithy about being here, but I think that’s a different dialogue.


gustave dore, the body of elaine from tennyson's idylls of the king

I had a dream last night that my principal called me in and told me that I couldn’t do my own thing in classes, but had to do as everyone was being told to do. We would all teach the same things at the same time. In response, I told her that she would have to come up with the curriculum for all four of my classes then, and went on to waking up.

Yet, here I am this morning, worrying about what I will teach next fall, how I will survive planning for four preps. I contemplated how I would get the writing in, and the reading. Half dressed, I’ve been looking through anthologies of short stories and essays. And I realize that I can connect the writing to the readings by pairing the genre – read persuasion; write persuasion, and I have a lot of short pieces I already know about and have used, so I can do this. I need to relax and plan it out by objectives and goals, plug in the texts, and recycle plans and Power Points and I can do this.

So why do I feel so intimidated by a dreamed threat? Why do I see following a curriculum scripted from above as a script. Because it threatens my autonomy, and my autonomy is now, and has always been of great importance to me. In high school, Marty Lunquist and I branded ourselves Rebels, we listed to popular music, AND jazz and folk music. We didn’t hang out with the popular set, much as we might have wanted to. Like them, we rolled our Gant shirt sleeves up, but we rolled ours to the inside. We stood apart, but only enough apart to make clear that we were not less in status or other qualities than the group, but apart enough to show that did not gain those things from membership in the Group. We could travel with the Group. We could be recognized as valid participants in the Group. We could even attain a level of leadership within the Group. But we were Autonomous. We were most completely us apart from the group. We were who we were because of who we were, not because of our membership.

I have carried and cherished that sense of autonomy in so many ways ever since. That I could determine for myself what was fair, right and equitiable became a sort of doxastic that could be construed to entitle a range of disrespect, defiance and debauchery. I could use moral and ethical logic, as did the laws and mores of society, to place myself outside of but no less than those laws and mores. Indeed, I rose above the social code; I was not a blind, mindless adherrent. That I had arrived at this Code Civil independently of, though of coursed based in, 3,000 years of thought made my code better. A horrendously arrogant display of self-entitlement? Well, maybe not horrendous.

Of course, it was only better or even acceptable in a local sort of logic. In a more, literally global sort of logic, one would ask what right had I to step outside the regimentation of society for no other purpose but to serve myself.

   “What if everybody threw paper out of the car? What kind of a world would this be?” Mom asked in the lilting semi-whine of maternal chastisement.
   “Everywhere would look like Arkansas,” I replied, but pulled my hand back into the car.

So, is my cherished autonomy really civil or moral litter?

Still, when someone tells me what I will think or what I will feel if they…, I am indignant. By what right or power can someone rob me of the opportunity to think and feel for myself? Does it suggest that I am ignorant of my own mind? That I cannot properly control my thoughts and feelings? That I am mentally or morally defective? What possible mental condition on my part could account for someone else knowing my thoughts and feelings before they can even happen? What pathetic mental state must I be in to have someone not only feel the power to predict my feelings, no matter the accuracy of that prediction, and then respond to my possibly, even probably, erroneously predicted feelings?

Wait. I may have abused my autonomy, even reached beyonds its legitimate limits, but it is still mine. It may be weakly founded and falsely elevated, but I have a full right to my own autonomy. Even if I choice to follow the dictates of a completely benighted state, and even if that choosing is flawed or unsound, it is within my power to choose, and anyone may challenge my choice, not never my right to make it. My autonomy is absolutley mine alone.

Of course to remain autonomous, I must survive.

How to get way rich…..!

All right. I’m sitting in a staff development that we are having because it was decided that we would be better off with more (unspecified) staff development. Oh, I know. I tell kids, “More is better,” but I think it usually means that fluency in writing is a good thing and will be rewarded.

So I spend time scanning the Times. I was reading this article earlier this morning,  “Treasury to Set Executives’ Pay at 7 Ailing Firms“, and it made me think.

I heard not long ago that Americans largely disapprove of the mega-bonuses paid to big bank and insurance exec’s who are using Federal money to keep the companies afloat. Americans think that’s wrong, BUT. Americans largely do not want weighty taxes put on big salaries. Generally, we don’t disapprove of huge incomes. Why? Because one day it will be our turn and we want it all. You know. When we win the lottery.

So …wait. We didn’t used to have lotteries all over the country and we didn’t have people earning 7 or 8 or 9 digit salaries. Look at the chart that’s attached to this article. Chart of salaries. What do you notice? That they’re almost all old White guys? No, that’s not what I mean. I mean Steve Jobs made about $100,000, and he’s doing okay. And Sanjay K. Jha had to struggle along on $104,400,000, probably because Apple switched over to Intel for processors. Jha made 1,044 times as much as Jobs!? Hm.

Okay. I get it. It’s about making the lottery legal.

You start with a going corporation…Sell lots of stocks.  Make a big name. Start making a lot of profit. Try to figure out how not to pay taxes on the profit and how not to distribute the profits among the stock holders. If the stocks look too good, the price goes up and your stock options aren’t getting you the controlling shares you want. Skip the stock options, go for the cash. That’s better because you don’t have to share.

So how do you avoid taxes and keep looking “good”? Find another way to pay for the things taxes pay for. Hey. Lottery! Start paying your lobbyists and well, your legislator. [Come on. I chair a political action committee. Wheels need oil.]

Get two things through – tax breaks for corporate profits – no corporate income tax. It would drive out companies, kill capital investment lead to layoffs, etc. Oh, and it would take money away from billion dollar giants. And a lottery.

How to pay for all those other things, the human services? Lottery surpluses. It sounds really good. Use the money from the lottery for schools. (Yeah, right.) No taxation. Let the poorest, most desperate believe that they can spend grocery money buying a lottery ticket or ten because her/his number is bound to come up, and now everyone can be rich. There’s money to pay for schools, health care, elderly, roads, bridges, parks, libraries, all paid for by the grocery money of the poor, nearly poor, and certainly deluded.

Meanwhile the middle class sinks toward poverty as its money goes into the impoverished cycle of poor, supporting the poor on the one hand. Meanwhile, the middle class is paying interest into the pockets of the financial system that can be swimming in cash, even when it goes sour. Whose houses are being foreclosed? Who are ever the victims of greed? But that’s another story. Poor people lose their home, and the middle class lose their retirement investments, and the small businesses fold up, but the moguls of finance walk away with the chips.

And it’s okay with Americans, because one day…one day…it’ll be my turn.

Fresh start/Fresh stop

Sitting at my desk, in my denuded Edison High School, Minneapolis classroom, at the end of the school year, reflecting on the past year. This year has been bad and good. Perhaps not the worst year; that would be 2002-2003 when I worked as the alternative compensation plan coordinator, a bureaucrat. Certainly not my best year; that would probably be one of the years at Sanford, maybe 1983-84, or Ramsey, 1988-89, or Seward 1996-97 or 1997-98. But these were all good for the students I had and classes I taught. If I calculate in administration and colleagues, the picture becomes more mixed. It becomes hard to say what are the best really, and it’s a pointless exercise.

The bad this year: As a school that has been “fresh started”, as in reconstituted, Edison was a wounded bird trying to rise. The damage was not as severe here for the remaining staff as at Washburn, but it was bad enough. “Most” is most in one’s perception, and for the survivors, this was probably the most painful experience. Whether that damage carried over into classrooms and to kids, I can’t really know, but if the relationships among teachers does impact the classroom and kids, it did have an impact.

Most pronounced in the relationships was the stationary front lingering between the high pressure zone of new faculty to Edison and the low pressure zone of remaining teachers. Certainly there were crossovers and even whole areas where the productive blending took effect, in the English department for sure and the social studies department apparently and perhaps in others. Between departments was a wholly different matter. I asked, suggested, advised and all but begged through the second half of the year for meetings between the English and social studies departments to discuss novels and other readings thus avoiding duplications. To date, no joint meeting. The physical education department’s passive/aggressive complaint about using a rarely used gym half way through the fourth day of our use of it. Walking up to a group of established teachers to ask a question and being invisible. The barrier becomes a little more solid.

The good this year: As a school that has been “fresh started”, Edison found many new teachers and a hopeful attitude among its students. That students at Washburn had walked out and demonstrated over the loss of teachers last year, I was probably leery and certainly unprepared when students complained about their teachers from last year. It didn’t help that they tried to paint me, as a declining returnee to Washburn, with the lousy teacher brush. Yet, by the end of the year, I liked even the most difficult of them, they seemed to like me, and many made good gains by the middle or end of the year.

I like kids, and I pull hard for the disadvantaged, marginalized and disenfranchised. I know that they may be ungrateful, unsuccessful and obnoxious, but I have to try and I don’t need much success feel rewarded. Not the best year, it was a pretty good year for caring about kids; they needed it. I am no less amazed at the love kids are capable of and their clumsiness in expressing it. Maybe I’m as bad. I am not at all amazed that the thing that makes teaching good is spending my time with kids. I am getting old though. I just don’t have the energy for it any more. I think it is only the kids that will bring me back here. The adults are too busy being about being adults together. Maybe I’ll just dub my room the Hermitage. Kids won’t get it; so they’ll come in. Adults…no they probably won’t get it either, but they don’t come in now.

None of this should be taken too seriously, you know.

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