Confessions of a Canon-Loving Multiculturalist

By Fairbrother, Anne | Multicultural Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Confessions of a Canon-Loving Multiculturalist

Fairbrother, Anne, Multicultural Education

School Reform and the Language Arts Classroom

THERE ARE VARIOUS and competing proposals for school reform. Most claim to offer the panacea for the ills of the public schools, offering perspectives that differ according to their underlying assumptions about the social and individual purposes of schooling. Calls for school reform come couched in words like "standards" and "accountability," or they come in the name of"democracy in the classroom" or "educational equity."

Any reform that is implemented must be assessed by educational outcomes, which ultimately comes down to what happens in the classroom. Thus, the classroom, and its curricula and pedagogies, is the locus of the state of education. Whether it is the bastion of tradition, or the cutting edge of change, what happens in the classroom, to, for, and by the students, is the measure of the prevailing educational philosophy, policies, and rhetoric.

Site-based management, parental involvement, alternative bell schedules, work-to-school partnerships, technological infusions, integrated curricula, performance based assessment-all make a difference only to the degree that they impact what happens within the classroom. Thus, some of the most bitter ideological (and hence political and academic) battles are those that vie for the hegemonic control of the classroom exchange. This can be observed in all curricular areas, and one of the most blatant is the high school language arts class.

The battle there is for students' hearts and minds. The question of what students should learn is translated into what literature the students should read, how they are allowed to respond to it, and what they learn about forms and uses of literacy. One of the major ways the discourse is framed is in terms of the literary canon versus multicultural literature. This is an ongoing debate, complex and radical, in the sense that it gets to the roots of the question of what cultural discourse will be privileged in our schools, who will benefit from access to that discourse, andwho will be excluded.

E.D. Hirsch (1987) writes about the importance of being culturally literate. He says that children who aren't culturally literate are at a disadvantage in our society, and so the schools must teach such literacy (Hirsch,1987, p. 24). And of course, the culture-the perspective-of the dominant culture is the content of such literacy.

He explains why:

All literate Americans know traditional information about Abraham Lincoln but relatively few know about Jeb Stuart. To become literate it's therefore more important to know about Lincoln than about Stuart. The priority has nothing to do with inherent merit, only with the accidents of culture. Stuart certainly had more merit than Benedict Arnold did, but Arnold also should be given educational priority over Stuart. Why? Because Benedict Arnold is as much a part of our national language as is, say, Judas. (p. 26)

"An accident of culture," is what Hirsch calls it, to justify that his "list" of what a culturally literate person should know is, of course, naturally, a spelling bee of dominant culture perspectives. Michael Apple ( 1990 ) addresses this "accident" in his book Ideology and Curriculum and states his intent: begin to grapple with ways of understanding how the kinds of cultural resources and symbols schools select and organize are dialectically related to the kinds of normative and conceptual consciousness "required" by a stratified society. ( p. 2)

Apple asks the key question of how schools "create and recreate forms of consciousness that enable social control to be maintained without the necessity of dominant groups having to resort to overt mechanisms of domination" (p. 3). And he answers this with the concept of hegemony, the level of acceptance of social paradigms, that translates to the status quo being perceived as "common sense" or "the way things are."

On the basis of this guiding frame of reference, curriculum content is selected and excluded, and certain knowledge, rich in "latent ideological content," is legitimated (p. …

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