Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Imperial Colonialism through Literature and Schools for Everyone

In a small way, I sympathized with McCarthy's (2005) experience of Anglo-American Culture War through “imposed canonical literature . . . imperial symbolic” (p. 9) Several years ago, I taught at an international in which most of my students were from European countries. Within my tenure there, the school moved from a mostly American curriculum to mostly British. It seems the reason was budgetary – it was cheaper getting supplies from Britain than from the US. So, we instituted The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) program, which is an international qualification test/curriculum, developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations and is equivalent to Britain's GCSE.

As an American teacher, I was a bit uncomfortable with the narrowness of the novels, poetry and drama selected for study. Although the list is revised each year, and this current incarnation does include famous American authors such as Harper Lee, Lorraine Hansberry , the nod to non-British authors is just in passing, through Chinua Achebe and Anita Desai, and certainly nothing contemporary. To score well on the IGCSE test (5 essay questions in about 3 ½ hours) one must be able to read and interpret for literal meaning, context and deeper themes in the literature. These tests are than sent to Cambridge to be scored. As McCarthy said, “Power as exercised in culture takes devious routes.” (p. 8) As I look back at that experience now, I realize that the IGCSE is just another form of British colonization. Cambridge, “one of the world's premier universities” is dictating curriculum to hundreds of schools around the world, and mostly in the name of “getting ahead.” According to the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) website, “CIE qualifications are recognised [sic] throughout the world. At CIE we are committed to ensuring that university admission offices, colleges, employers and professional bodies around the world understand the value of CIE qualifications.” (www.cie.org.uk/qualifications/recognition )

I had one American student resist this imposition, by writing nonsense sentences on the test rather than attempting it. As I read Lee (2005), I recognized many of the issues she addresses in local schools - minority students resisting the values of a middle-class education through passivity, absenteeism, or blatant rebellion. But, I wonder how schools can use “the opportunity to (re)construct definitions of America and Americans to reflect the diversity of the United States” (p. 144). This means much more than multicultural education and having African-American month. Although countries outside of the US have definite ideas of what makes an American an American (overweight, rude, naive) , this conversation has not been had within the US. I think that the view of the US as a melting pot has changed to be a patchwork quilt, with each group (racial, gendered, political) taking its own square and defending it – THIS is what it means to be an American! Again, as Lee (2005) said, “In an increasingly diverse society, it is imperative that schools teach all students that there are multiple ways of being American” (p. 144).

However, here is my dilemma, how do we create schools that work for everyone? This phrase is bantered around, meaning different things in different contexts. For some, it means provide technical education programs; but I mean it as an educational system that will genuinely allow everyone to discover their true potential and then be able to achieve it. Another problem, as worded by Tabachnick and Bloch (1995), “there is difficulty determining which features of “culture” are significant and should be changed in school” (p. 205) And, if something is changed to support a few, would this change not impact a few others, maybe negatively?

"The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody has yet thought about that which everyone sees" - Arthur Schopenhauer (1818) – German philosopher

Lee, S. J. (2005). Learning about race, learning about America. In L. Weis & M. Fine (Eds.), Beyond silenced voices: Class, race, and gender in United States schools (Rev. ed, pp. 133-146). Albany: State University of New York Press.
McCarthy, C. (2005) English Rustic in Black Skin: post-colonial education, cultural hybridity and racial identity in the new century. Policy Futures in Education, 3, 4 413-422.
Tabachnick, BR, & Bloch, MN (1995). Learning in and out of school: Critical perspectives on the theory of cultural compatibility. In BB Swadener & S. Lubeck (Eds.). Children and families “at promise:”Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany: State University of New York Press

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