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Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom

by Lisa Delpit

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 1-56584-179-4
Publisher: New Press

 A cogent collection of essays and academic papers suggesting that multiculturalism in the classroom is an illusion that masks miscommunication and the continuation of a white-male-dominated society. MacArthur fellow Delpit (Education/Morgan State Univ.) is a teacher of teachers. A black woman who grew up in Louisiana in the 1960s and '70s, she experienced prejudice and stereotyping firsthand. But it was her stints as a teacher and observer of students as diverse as preschoolers in New Guinea and Native American teachers-in-training in Alaska that helped her formulate her ideas about the subtle misunderstandings that lead children of color--African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans--to be labeled underachievers. When communication fails between teacher and student, for instance, it may be a question of style. Working-class children, says Delpit, are often used to families where instructions are explicit and direct: ``Get your rusty behind in that bathtub,'' a working-class mother might say to her eight-year-old. ``Would you like to take your bath now?'' is the likely approach of a white middle-class mother. When such ``veiled commands'' are issued by middle-class teachers in the schoolroom, ``other people's children'' are likely to consider them as mere suggestions and continue with their own activities. Lacking explicit instruction about the rules is one reason children not raised in what Delpit calls the ``culture of power''--in white middle-class or upper-class families--quickly abandon schoolbook learning. But Delpit also criticizes teachers who encourage individual expression while offering their charges little or no direction in how to cope in the real world, which is not so tolerant of individualism. On the question of ``black'' versus ``standard'' English, she urges: Teach formal English grammar; teach spelling and literature. They are the tools needed to succeed. But honor the students' traditions, keeping in mind that formal English is only one rather arbitrary method of discourse. Argued with a voice of reason and experience.