Note: This article appeared in the November 25, 2005 issue of the Metrowest Daily News.
One of the many things we as Americans can be thankful for in this Thanksgiving season is the diversity which is a hallmark of our society. From the beginning, the United States was known far and wide as a place that welcomed immigrants from all corners of the globe. All of us were taught in elementary school about the legacy that the Statue of Liberty represented - a welcoming beacon to all people who sought liberty on our shores.
The twentieth century witnessed our country's long, hard progress towards refining and elevating the notion of diversity to a new level. To its original meaning, signifying simply the fact that our population arrived from a wide variety of geographic origins, was gradually added the notion that a true celebration of diversity should include equality of opportunity for all persons in America, and its corollary, an absence of discrimination against any of the groups that constituted our body politic. To be truthful, the progress towards such an ideal society has been difficult, painful, sometimes halting, and by no means completed. But the legacy of the last several generations has been a clear mandate to move forward and treat our fellow citizens with equal respect, with no regard for their economic class, ethnicity or race, religious affiliation, or gender.
Perhaps the most elemental symbol of this century of progress is the difference between America's attitude towards immigrants a hundred years ago, and today. At the turn of the 19th century, a phrase frequently used to describe our country was "a melting pot". This image represented the widespread desire to replace the heterogeneous backgrounds of immigrants by a common, uniform "American" experience - in other words, to "melt" all the different components of our population into one homogeneous mixture, which no longer showed any "lumps" of differentiation. In line with this goal, people were urged to abandon their native languages and customs, and to replace them entirely with English and with new American rituals (of which the Thanksgiving holiday was one).
Compare that attitude with the one prevailing today, which urges people to combine the treasured parts of their cultural origins with the new, original contributions of modern American culture. Multi-culturalism is now viewed as a positive force in society, leading to the enrichment of American culture as a whole. While recognizing the central role the English language plays in this country's daily experience - and, increasingly, in the world as a whole - we celebrate the many added nuances that other languages and historical experiences bring to each of us as we are exposed to them, and to our nation as a whole.
Given this widely accepted approval of diversity in all aspects of our society, it is especially worrisome that the one place that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its value is our schools, the training grounds for our future generations. To be sure, schools pay lip-service to the outward forms and phrases of diversity. They teach about different holidays, talk about different customs and dress - all the superficial stuff. But the main message of schools is that of the ultimate melting pot, the one that not only reduces everything to one uniform mix, but also takes away the "dross".
Schools start from the assumption that there exists an ideal, desired state of childhood for every child at each and every age. That desired state is the one that each child should reach. Ideally, in the view of traditional education, all first graders (all of whom are the same age, within a year) should learn the same material (the "national curriculum standards", mimicked by virtually every state) at the same pace and in the same manner (standard textbooks, workbooks, interactive learning media, etc.). The same for second graders, third graders, and so forth, right through the twelfth grade, the senior year of high school.
Make no mistake about it: there is no room for variation here. And to bring home the message loud and clear, the relatively new concept of "accountability" (a word derived from the same root as "accountant", a person who deals with uniform, measurable standards in the world of business) has been introduced. Accountability is defined by yet another set of homogenizing experiences - namely, standardized tests. These are designed to make absolutely sure that "no child is left behind" - that every child is measured by the same exact set of criteria, and that those who do not measure up (the "dross") are removed from the mix and shunted aside, labeled, treated as somehow deficient, and urged to make their way as best they can. The goal is absolute uniformity; those who don't fit the goal are separated out ("separate but equal", a notion that used to govern our schools until fifty years ago) and, to put it bluntly, discriminated against.
Why is diversity not proudly and loudly celebrated in the schools that supposedly are meant to teach children to function in a society that professes diversity to be a central moral principle for adults? Why do we not use as a starting point the obvious fact - obvious to anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with children - that every child is unique, that no two children are alike in their interests, their behavior, their emotional makeup, their natural inclinations and skills, their physical constitution, their agility, their dexterity, or in any other of the many human traits that define our species?
Why isn't it obvious to educators, as it is to so many laypersons, that (as James Hillman so eloquently put it in his classic work, "The Soul's Code") "children . . . categorized [as having 'learning deficits'], and adults too, are often those with above-average intelligence, given to day-dreams, and with such widely open sensitive souls that their 'ego' behavior is noncompliant and disorganized. . . . What might [a child's] soul be doing when it is NOT reading, NOT speaking, and NOT fulfilling performance expectations? To discover this takes patience."
Our whole society has learned, over a long and often difficult period of time, to exhibit the patience required of each of us individually in order to be truly accepting of, and respectful towards, others who are unlike us. We insist that this patience be exhibited in daily life, and we demand of ourselves and of each other constant improvement in our ability to accept true diversity in our midst.
It is a great disservice to our children that we, as a society, do not demand of ourselves and of our schools the same acceptance - pure acceptance, not reluctant lip-service, not labeling, not shunting aside into "special" categories - of the great diversity that children of all ages display. Our schools owe it to our country's future to reconstitute themselves in a fundamental way that celebrates the diversity of our children, encourages it, and patiently watches it express itself in a spiritual blossoming of unimaginable proportions.
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