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What Is an American Education?

June 21, 1987|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, is author of "Hunger of Memory" (Godine) and of "The Protestant Reformation," soon from Viking

SAN FRANCISCO — I am thinking of travel. The difference between a traveler and the nomad is a permanent address. The traveler takes his point of view on tour. The same metaphor has often enough been applied to an education. The student acquires a point of view, he then applies his point of view, his method, to a wider experience.

What is an American education?

The argument is between those who think education should teach that Americans are of one purpose and those who believe that education should teach that Americans are of many purposes but tolerant among ourselves. The debate can be observed as shuttling between right and left, but curiously so. For it is the right urging a communal curriculum, while the arguments for individualism--the protestant arguments--come from the left.

The Study Commission on Global Education, which last month issued its report ("The United States Prepares for Its Future: Global Perspectives in Education") would probably like to be perceived as brooding over all. However, in emphasizing the need for "global perspective," the commission lists to the left. Members do not wonder (as traditionalists would) whether American students can trace a path back to Thomas Jefferson. The commission is troubled that American students are becoming "global illiterates," unprepared for an international future. The members recommend that the nation's students, from first grade to high school, confront the foreign, learn histories, values, tongues.

The commission consists of the sort of people who can be said to inhabit official America, including a state governor, a New York foundation officer and academic bureaucrats of the first water--deans and college presidents. Several are authors of their own education reports. These are people who attend meetings. These are people who fly the redeye from here to there and who communicate to persons sitting next to them through microphones or by memo. The commission is supported by grants from Exxon and from the Ford Foundation and from Rockefeller.

These are people out of touch. Their aim, they say, is to lend support to "pioneers" of Global Perspective Education--toilers on the earth--with a "continuous flow of suggestions." I doubt if they can have seen a classroom for many a long year, so unfettered is their optimism about what can happen there.

A copy of the report costs $10 and I recommend it to anyone interested in what policy-makers and foundations are up to. From its board room, presumably in outer space, the commission beams platitudes: "Teachers should bring to the classroom from their collegiate experiences a broad but integrated education that encourages curiosity about connections among the classroom, the school, and the world at large."

The problem is real. The study commission reminds us how the world beyond our borders is becoming "increasingly interrelated." And within, our country is "increasingly multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic and mobile." America is more complex than ever, the world is getting smaller. So what is needed, concludes the commission, is not necessarily a new curriculum but the reformation of existing courses "in global perspective." A new curriculum, in other words.

Europe fades from memory. The commission casts its insidiously bland eye toward new continents. At the high school level, for example, there should be "in-depth study of at least two other cultures, including a non-European culture, in addition to that of the United States . . . ." The objective is to prepare for Tomorrowland.

Few words issue from the commission's 52-page report with more frequency or with less precision than does the word "diversity." The dilemma of our national diversity becomes, with a little choke on logic, the solution: American educators "must understand diversity." "Appreciate diversity." "Deal constructively with diversity." Pay "greater attention to . . . diversity . . . around the world and within the United States."

The Study Commission for Global Education is headed by Clark Kerr, ex-president of the University of California. The commission has sought a term comparable to the chimerical "multiversity"--Kerr's famous coinage for the university of the '60s--a term that would at the same time account for the current condition of the American primary classroom and justify the lack of any singular vision of what a classroom ought to be. Diversity is a liquid noun. Diversity admits everything, stands for nothing.

I do not agree that the primary purpose of early education is to teach diversity. I believe something closer to the reverse--that education's primary purpose, its distinguishing obligation, is to foster communality. It is in the classroom that the child comes to learn a public identity. The child learns the skills of numbers and words crucial to public survival, and learns to put on a public self, apart from family or ethnic community.

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