Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Investigating below the Surface: In His New Book, Berkeley Anthropologist John Ogbu Explores the Performance Gaps between Black and White Middle-Class Students in a Cleveland Suburb

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Investigating below the Surface: In His New Book, Berkeley Anthropologist John Ogbu Explores the Performance Gaps between Black and White Middle-Class Students in a Cleveland Suburb

Article excerpt

Dr. John Ogbu, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley, has been studying academic achievement gaps for more than 30 years. An immigrant from Nigeria, he can be both an insider and an outsider within the Black community, but says his ethnographic approach allows him to establish a rapport with people of all races and investigate below the surface. Ogbu's work is often cited by theorists de-bunking the bell curve myth, which asserts that intelligence is a highly heritable trait and plays a critical role in socioeconomic achievement and social pathology. Ogbu was featured in Eminent Educators: Studies in Intellectual Influence (2000), along with John Dewey, Howard Gardner and Carol Gilligan.

In his latest book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, he explores the performance gaps between Black and White middle-class students in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Though he recommends some changes on the school level, his suggestion that Black parents should become more involved in their children's education has struck some nerves. In an interview with Black Issues In Higher Education, Ogbu defends his theories, and says they date back far before his first trip to Shaker Heights in 1997.

BI: You were born and raised in Nigeria. How did you end up as an anthropology professor at Berkeley?

JO: Everything by accident. I came here originally to study to be a priest. I was raised up in a Presbyterian mission school. I had gone to a school of journalism in Central Africa run by the World Council of Churches, then they sent me to Princeton. We thought that just like at good, old Oxford the [Princeton theological] Seminary and the University were the same. When I got there, I learned they were separated 200 years before I was born. So I took my English courses at the university, my theology courses at the seminary and then came out West. Somebody I met at the seminary, his mother was working in the office of admissions, so I was able to get admission to Berkeley a few days before admission closed.

BI: Why anthropology?

JO: Well, I was impressed that the people going into the ministry in this country learned something about their society. I thought it would be nice if I learned something about Africa. They didn't teach Africa in English or any other department. So I majored in anthropology, because if I went back to Nigeria, I would have to know how to do research and all sorts of things.

BI: So did you make it back to Nigeria?

JO: In 1968, after taking my graduate exams, I was actually going to go to Kenya in East Africa to study urbanization in Mombasa. I spent five months studying Swahili. Then I found myself in Stockton, California. to join a team that was going to introduce bilingual education. Partly because of lack of funds, and partly because I came from Nigeria during the civil war, and I was on the wrong side of the war, I came from Biafra, and I didn't know how that would affect my research in Africa. But I'm glad I went to Stockton out of ignorance.

BI: So that's what got you interested in achievement gaps ?

JO: Yes. In Stockton, there were about seven ethnic groups. Some were doing very well. Some were doing very poorly. I followed the kids who were in kindergarten when I got to Stockton trail they finished high school. The other thing that interested me was that [Arthur] Jensen, my colleague in the School of Education here, had published a very famous paper in 1969 arguing that it [i.e. the achievement gap] is due to genetic differences. I didn't believe it.

To show that it wasn't genetic, I chose six societies, three in which there were racial differences between minorities and majorities, and three in which there were not. There are no racial differences in Israel, where I compared Ashkenazi Jews and Oriental Jews. No racial differences in India, where I compared lower caste, untouchables with the Brahmin castes. …

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