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Seeking cultural identity can divide, not unite - Shirley Dent [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Shirley Dent

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Seeking cultural identity can divide, not unite [Jun. 25th, 2009|12:53 pm]
Shirley Dent
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Just when you thought your teenager couldn’t get any more self-obsessed, up pops the ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ week and website to get them really navel-gazing: ‘Have you ever asked yourself questions like: What makes me who I am? What is my identity? What makes me, unique? These questions are about IDENTITY’. 
‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ week (WDWTWA) is coming to a school near you NOW. It is a ‘national educational programme’ initiated by Sir Keith Ajegbo’s 2007 Curriculum Review on Diversity and Citizenship and it ‘engages primary and secondary teachers in the exploration of identity, diversity and citizenship with children and young people’. This year it takes place between 22 – 27 June. 
All well and good and what’s wrong with a bit of diversity and tolerance, you might well ask. Nothing, is the short answer. But this is a diversity that – however well intentioned – divides. Despite the very loud banging of the diversity drum, much of WDWTWA ethos seems to be headed for accidental sectarianism in the classroom. The idea that we all need to root around in ‘our personal and family journeys’ is not compatible with the ideas that a child can leave their personal circumstances at the door of the classroom, that knowledge is universal and for everyone, whoever they are. Education should be about widening the horizons of young people, taking them by the shoulders and turning them to face the often daunting – but exciting - world of knowledge and ideas out there. Instead, WDWTWA week is all about me, me, me, ‘designed to get young people talking about themselves... all young people can have something to say about who they think they are’. 
But education is NOT about ‘who we think we are’. It is about the gasp of breath when you first encounter Hamlet’s soliloquy or the nail-bitten-down-in-awe when you first appreciate the elegance of Einstein’s equations. It’s about those moments, in a nutshell, when you realise the world is a bigger, more wonderful place than you alone. 
Education that gives us such moments doesn’t have to worry about diversity. It is diverse simply in what it teaches and what it does – it blows apart the pigeonholes. In contrast, WDWTWA seems all too keen to scurry towards those pigeonholes and dig out those stereotypes. The WDWTWA website promotes the case study of a ‘largely white school’ in Cheshire which had devised ‘an exciting conceptual curriculum’, emphasising ‘the importance of developing cultural empathy and critical thinking to prepare pupils for a diverse world’. I am sure all of this is done and said with the very best of intentions. But this made me despair more than anything else I have read recently. The implication seems to be that in the 21st century we are now devising curriculums based on racial profiling of the pupils. No good can come of such a thing. 
But we shouldn’t despair. Because our young people are smart and tough and open to the world. In all of this we need to remember that kids are not racists in embryo. Nor are they stupid. At the Institute of Ideas we run a challenging national debating competition for 16 – 18 year olds, which launched in India earlier this year.

But whether in the UK or India, we have never cared who you are or where you come from. We care about your arguments. And our experience over five years is that so do the young people: rather than looking back and dilly-dallying with identity politics, they want to grab hold of the word and the ideas shaping it right here and now. It is not a case of ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ with these kids, but a case of ‘How are we going to shape the world?’ And in this they simply defy being pigeon-holed. The Indian champions are coming to London next week to compete against the UK winners and debate ‘Protecting the public from terrorism should come before civil liberties’. I would not dare to second guess what the arguments will be. But I look forward to engaging with those who will have to find answers to these real political questions in the future. ‘Who do you think you are?’ seems like a very small question in comparison. 

[User Picture]From: shegelu
2009-06-25 06:35 pm (UTC)

Rather uncritical thinking here

Shirley, I'm afraid that, for a critical thinker, you make a lot of assumptions in this blog.

For example, you assume that classrooms can be culturally unspecific arenas. Are schools miraculous institutions that somehow transcend the cultures and systems in which they exist? I think any systems theorist (or any teacher) could tell you that is simply not possible.

Encouraging pupils to divorce themselves from their cultural identity in a school environment actually forces all pupils to conform to the dominant culture in which the school exists. As regards school rules of conduct, this is essential to keep a degree of order. Thus, if the wearing of certain culturally specific clothing contravenes school rules, it is quite correct for a school to insist on the precedence of the school cultural norms.

However, an insistence that pupils impose a cultural apartheid on themselves while in school handicaps pupils of a different cultural origin and favours those who share the dominant culture.

Encouraging pupils to locate themselves culturally challenges them to analyze both themselves and the culture of the school and the society they live in. It also encourages them to understand that there is no "objective" viewpoint of any situation and that knowledge is developed by cross-referencing and comparing new information with what they know already.

Knowing who they are and where they are from does not pigeonhole pupils, but instead enables them to redefine themselves and their aspirations consciously.

I do not know if the WDWTWA initiative is sufficiently rigorous to help pupils through this process, but I know that your arguments against it are ill thought through. Some self-examination of your own cultural bias might help you understand the situation better.
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[User Picture]From: ron_broxted
2009-06-25 07:55 pm (UTC)

An East End tale.

In my day (I left secondary school in the 1970s) we (2nd generation Irish) were told we were just scum fit for labouring. To get ahead one needed an English head. Rates for attendance at Catholic churches plumetted in the 80s. They succeeded in knocking the Irishness out of us. Plus the Catholicism.
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