Road to My Memoir, Part 2: Multiculturalism

June 8, 2013

When I wrote about this long path to Boy @ The Window last month, I figured that it would take three posts in all to discuss the path. But the road’s shown itself to be longer — and more convoluted — than I anticipated.

So I never did write my book about being on welfare, dehumanization and welfare policy. I found a much more interesting subject to take up the following year, in the summer of ’90. I decided to take the late Barbara Sizemore’s research methods course in Black Studies that fall, to move beyond my history courses, as I’d already taken enough of them to have fulfilled my major.

I wanted to look at the re-segregation of desegregated schools through tracking or ability grouping, specifically in Mount Vernon’s public schools. The book that brought me to this topic was Jeannie Oakes’ masterpiece Keeping Track: How School Structure Inequality (1985). It had begun to turn my mind away from slavery as a long-term history project (perhaps one I would’ve pursued in doing my master’s papers or doctoral research) and toward history of education and racial inequality.

Oakes’ main argument was that school desegregation was a mixed bag of success and failure precisely because of the fact that with tracking by academic “ability,”disadvantaged Black students and advantaged White students would seldom meet in the same classrooms. That made me think of my still recent experiences with the Humanities Program in middle school and high school. After all, a school district that was three-quarters Black, Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic had a magnet program that was about sixty percent White during my six years in Humanities.

I spent that summer — when I wasn’t working — at Mount Vernon Public Library, NYU’s Bobst Library, and New York Public Library giving myself a stronger background on this topic. I met with the former MVHS Humanities coordinator Joyce Flanagan (who had become Harrington by then) about getting more specific demographic data about the program by class year and school (Pennington-Grimes ES, A.B. Davis Middle School and MVHS). Much of the data had already been destroyed, Harrington confided. The data she did give me, while informative, wasn’t enough to do even a watered down version of what Oakes did for Keeping Track (she interviewed 14,000 students and teachers in all).

I ended up doing my research project on Pittsburgh Public Schools and their International Baccalaureate programs at Schenley and Allderdice HS. It was a solid paper, an easy A compared to my comparative slavery paper for Drescher’s graduate course the semester before. But it wasn’t enough for me.

In the course of building up my knowledge on segregation, suburban schools, urban school districts, and community control, I stumbled onto books about multicultural education. I wanted to learn more, so I took a sociology course my final undergraduate semester on the sociology of race and ethnicity (there weren’t any education courses that focused on either race or multiculturalism at Pitt in ’91).

The turning point came with my friend Elaine, who knew of my interest in the topic. She was the one who had informed me of a growing controversy with New York State’s newly proposed history curriculum, one in which the ideas of multicultural education had played a key role. That work the summer before grad school, that work to understand why there was any controversy at all, led me to finding out more about cultural pluralism and its history. This then led to the role of Black intellectuals and educators in applying cultural pluralism, the differences between multiculturalism, multicultural education and Afrocentricity.

I had my dissertation topic in broad strokes before I’d taken any courses as a master’s student (not counting the comparative slavery class). But in the process of moving from re-segregation and Jeannie Oakes to multiculturalism, I’d moved from a wide-eyed student of everything that related to my life at age twenty to an aspiring academician, a historian of educational and cultural ideas.

I’d taken the first steps to bury myself in academic writing and thinking, without fully understanding why I cared about multiculturalism in the first place. It took me a decade to figure out that the lack of understanding of diversity in Humanities was part of what made it a bittersweet experience for me, an experience that drove me toward multiculturalism as a research topic. It took ten years before I realized that my pursuit of multiculturalism in Black Washington, DC was my way of dealing with my own past without any emotion. Multiculturalism took me further away from the writer (and historian) I wanted to be, even as I earned my doctorate on the topic.

Cream on the Brain

December 12, 2010

A Brain Floating in the Heavy Cream of Obsession with Academic Excellence, December 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A quarter-century ago, education scholar and Ford Foundation education program director Jeanne Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Oakes’ groundbreaking, definitive work on the educational inequalities created or reinforced by ability grouping has led a whole generation of scholars to examine the viability of tracking in K-12 education. In a 2005 edition of her book, Oakes wrote that “through tracking, schools continue to replicate existing inequality along lines of race and social class and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and economic inequality.”

I picked up Oakes’ Keeping Track for the first time in ’90. By then, I already knew from experience how true her words and research were. Six years in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools via the Humanities Program had taught me all I’d need to know about the tensions between creating a class of students whose level of academic performance was par excellence while simultaneously addressing segregation and diversity in the school district. The magnet program and the district failed at one and succeeded at the other, which in turn reinforced its failure.

I worked on a paper some twenty years ago for the late Barbara Sizemore, my professor at the University of Pittsburgh my senior year (and a former superintendent of DC Public Schools) looking at how magnet school programs actually created resegregation in individual schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools because of the exclusivity that comes with tracking or ability grouping. It was an easy paper for me to do, guided in no small part by my experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. Easy, but not easy to get a handle on beyond the obvious demographics of race, class and test scores.

I managed to wiggle myself into the culture wars of the early ’90s and the debate around multiculturalism and K-12 education soon after that paper. It seems obvious now that the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities was what enabled me to takes sides in favor of multiculturalism. That led to my dissertation looking at the historical development of multiculturalism among Blacks in Washington, DC (“A Substance of Things Hoped For,” Carnegie Mellon University, 1997 for those who want more information), and eventually, my first book, Fear of a “Black” America from six years ago.

But it took my memoir Boy @ The Window to bring me back to square one. I realized about a year ago that I’d done nearly thirty interviews of former classmates, teachers and administrators for the manuscript. There was much more material to mine beyond their impressions of me and how to shape their descriptions of themselves — and my memories of them — into characters for Boy @ The Window. I decided to work on an academic piece that looked at the benefits and pitfalls of high-stakes schooling — not just testing — in the form of a history lesson via magnet schools, specifically my Humanities experience.

After a quick rejection, I redoubled my efforts a few months ago. I decided to look at the education psychology and sociology literature, as well as Oakes again, to see how these interviews and my experiences could be useful in our testing-obsessed times. I finally realized what had troubled me about Humanities for the past three decades. It was the reality that all involved with Humanities had taken on the e pluribus unum identity of an academic superstar (much more than just a nerd, by the way). Beyond Black or White, and ignoring the realities of poverty in our district and (at least for me) in our program, Humanities was all about sharpening our academic personas above all else.

This fueled the major success of Humanities during its existence between ’76 and ’93, which in turn would define its failures. In successfully nurturing the idea of academic excellence as identity, as evidenced by so many of us attending and graduating from college, this magnet program failed in its other major educational functions. It failed to embrace diversity, to help its students understand the diversity that was Humanities, to nurture creativity and imagination beyond A’s and college acceptances. It failed to develop the whole student, which aside from its charge to help desegregate Mount Vernon public schools, was its original mission.

Humanities failed because its teachers, administrators (including the former superintendent of schools) and many of the most vocal parents (mostly affluent and White) refused to deal with diversity seriously. Academic excellence without significant parental engagement or the humility necessary to discuss issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation led to a severe overemphasis on calling us the “creme de la creme.” All of this would have a negative impact on our development as students, and as emerging adults.

I don’t think that it’s asking too much of parents, administrators and teachers to work together in both striving for academic excellence while building programs that embrace difference and nurture creativity and imagination, and not just an addiction to A’s. Or is it?


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