An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons



Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Educators must take account of cultural differences. But “celebrating” diversity, as Pollyanna’s urge, is highly problematic. For one thing, the beliefs and practices of various cultures often are incompatible with one another. Moreover, they can be completely at odds with American values. 

Let’s turn to the world of public education for examples. Suppose I teach a class which includes youngsters whose culture of origin does not value timeliness. (When I lived in Jamaica, for example, I quickly discovered that events scheduled for, say, 2:00 P.M. might not start until 3:00, or even later.)  If I, as teacher, am committed to the “celebration” of difference, what should I do about these “soon come” kids? Should the rest of us wait patiently until they trickle in and then give them a round of applause for manifesting difference?

Of course not. Because of the way we organize schooling, I must insist on timeliness. I should do it in an understanding way. I might even ask these kids to tell the others about their culture of origin’s sense of time. But they still have to be there when class starts. Otherwise it impairs everyone’s learning.

We don’t even have to be teaching immigrant groups to confront this same problem. There are inner city schools in Philadelphia where a very large number of children are tardy every day. In fact many don’t show up for an hour or more after school starts. Some of this has to do with home problems such as supervising younger siblings. But it also is a feature of the culture of poverty. Which raises the question, what aspects of that culture are we to celebrate? 

Also consider the matter of gender equality. We, as a culture, are committed to that principle. For instance, we firmly subscribe to equal access to education for girls. Yet only 20% of the world’s nations offer females equal access. Shall we celebrate such gender inequality if it isn’t home grown? Perhaps we should send all the girls home on multi-culture day.

What about the savage inequality that homosexuals try to survive in much of the world? Is it OK for kids from other cultures to mistreat, even harm, homosexuals if that is what they did back home? 

Then there is the matter of youngsters who don’t agree with their parents continued commitment to the values and practices of their culture of origin. If that is the case, whose side should an educator be on? I recall a news story, for example, about a young lady of eighteen. She and her family were from India. True to their cultural tradition, her parents arranged a marriage for her to a much older man. But she was in love with an American her own age and refused to cooperate. Her parents were about to ship her back to India against her will when she ran away. Her mother and father reported her missing. The story made the news when local authorities refused to look for her once they discovered the circumstances. When she finally surfaced, she was married to her American boyfriend.

Now let’s suppose that such a thing happens in your class. Should you “celebrate” her family’s cultural values by encouraging her to obey her parents and return to India to marry? And if she understands herself to be an American rather than an Indian-American, should you emphasize her Indian origins anyway?

Similarly, suppose you have a young lady in your class from Saudi Arabia. Her parents, true to their culture of origin, absolutely refuse to let her read literature by and about women because, from a Saudi point of view, that encourages immodesty and impiousness. If I am her English teacher and am committed to the celebration of diversity, should I side with her parents and refuse to help her learn anything that might undermine her culture of origin? And if I discover that she still is secretly reading the likes of Kate Chopin or Harriet Arnow, should I tell her parents?

It is undeniable that many of the world’s cultures reject equal rights for women. When they do, should an educator encourage kids to celebrate that difference?

Other cultural practices raise similar problems. We’re told, for instance, that corruption in Zaire has reached such extraordinary levels that the society is best described as a “kleptocracy.” So let’s imagine that I get a Zairean youngster in my class who is fresh off the plane. And let’s further suppose that his parents offer to grease my palm if I give their child an “A”.” Should I take the money and celebrate this particular cultural difference with a night on the town? Or should I use the money to throw a pizza party for the class, where I explain to the kids how the parent of a class mate made it possible? Of course not. In the final analysis I just have to say no, and report the offer.

How about cultures who partially define themselves by their hatred and/or disdain for other cultures. The identity of many Croatians, for instance, is entangled with their hatred of Serbs, and visa versa. So let’s suppose I have kids from both cultures in my classroom. Should I celebrate their diversity by honoring their mutual loathing? “Look kids, do you see how Andrega is refusing to sit with Mirko? Well he is fulfilling a cultural tradition that is hundreds of years old. Isn’t that wonderful!”

For any reflective educator, the “celebration” of cultural difference is clearly problematic. In fact it is massive foolishness when, taken to its logical extreme, it promotes a radical tolerance that renders moral judgment mute. Educators should not be celebrating diversity. Hyphenated Americans can do that for themselves. Our job as educators is to help youngsters develop more fully as Americans; and to embrace the range of tolerance that typically is rejected, even attacked, in their country of origin.