Is Racism, Disguised as Compassion, at the Heart of Cultural Relevance? Do Minority Students Need a Curriculum They Can Relate To?

By Nazaryan, Alexander | Newsweek, September 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Is Racism, Disguised as Compassion, at the Heart of Cultural Relevance? Do Minority Students Need a Curriculum They Can Relate To?


Nazaryan, Alexander, Newsweek


Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

In the waning days of July, This American Life host Ira Glass went to see a performance of King Lear in Central Park. Many consider the tragedy of the ailing monarch to be Shakespeare at the apogee of his power. Not Glass. Not even close. Glass took to Twitter to complain that Shakespeare was "not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I'm realizing: Shakespeare sucks."

@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I'm realizing: Shakespeare sucks.

A later tweet charged that Shakespeare is "unemotional." Condemnation of Glass quickly followed, much of it focused on his apparent belief that "relatability" is an artistic virtue. In a widely-shared post, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead argued that relatability is an implicit requirement that art be a "flattering confirmation of an individual's solipsism."

The relatability scourge has no home as welcoming as the American classroom, particularly in the inner-city, where teachers are incessantly exhorted to make the subject matter matter--whether it be algebra or grammar. These students can only absorb knowledge, the noxious strain of thought goes, if it is immediately relevant to them. Otherwise, they will respond just as Glass did. The late young-adult author Walter Dean Myers, for example, once explained in The New York Times that he set his novels (Street Love, Dopesick, Lockdown, etc.) in the inner city so that his young readers could achieve "a validation of their existence as human beings." Presumably, no such validation is possible through Melville, or, for that matter, Ellison.

Myers's philosophy permeates the inner-city classroom (as do his books). I remember, during my first year of teaching middle-school English in an impoverished section of Brooklyn, the senior teacher in charge of the class, Ms. D., thought that our seventh-graders should watch, during instructional time, Everybody Hates Chris, the short-lived Chris Rock sitcom about his hapless Brooklyn childhood. I gently pointed out to Ms. D. that while the show was funny, it bore little educational value for students on the cusp of standardized tests and high school applications, in which they would compete against confident Manhattanites who could already recite chunks of Chaucer. To this, Ms. D. responded that I, (white boy, she might as well have added in apposition), could not possibly understand how important it was to display to our students lives that were something like their own. To this same questionable end, the poor seventh-graders, who could have been profitably reading Lorraine Hansberry or Jean Toomer, were made to listen to the dismal American Idol performance of Fantasia Barrino.

About a month later, Ms. D. was fired and I took over the classroom, and relatability went out the window. We read Langston Hughes, from long-ago Harlem, and Robert Frost, from far-away New Hampshire. I thought that, if anything, my students should relate to places as distant from the ghetto as possible, places of which they could dream, to which they could aspire. Relatability is a static virtue; in true learning, travel is required, perhaps through dangerous terrain: Lear's heath, Toni Morrison's plantation.

But there are plenty of Ms. D.s out there, who think Sophocles qua Sophocles has nothing to teach the South Bronx or the South Side. So the debate in the classroom continues, recently reignited by the introduction of the federal Common Core guidelines, which mandate a reading list to which few 21st century students will readily relate: George Orwell, Charlotte Bronte, et. al.

New York City's progressive schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, seems to be pushing back against those requirements by suggesting that students should "write about things they're personally involved in and write about their own memoirs." In other words, much like Ms. D., she would like to make the classroom free of the sort of thing that might make Ira Glass wince. …

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