Is The Debate About Culturally Relevant Curriculum A Phony War?

Matt Yglesias had an important post over the holiday break I’ve been meaning to highlight – and not just because it name-checked Sara Mead making an important point. It’s about culturally relevant curriculum, why it matters, and how increasing stridency in the woke/anti-woke debate can obscure a fair amount of agreement about it. ($)

The article is behind a paywall but here’s the gist,

I think a phrase like “we need to give kids material that’s interesting to them, which means stuff they identify with” is probably more compelling than a highly politicized vow to combat white supremacy.

Yglesias notes the broad middle ground that exists around the idea that there is nothing wrong with making sure kids see themselves in what they’re learning, rather there is some benefit. And he cites and calls for more evidence. Obviously at some level choices have to be made around standards and curriculum, time being a constraint. But we don’t have to choose between works that have endured the centuries – and often still have contemporary resonance and lessons precisely because they have – and an inclusive curriculum. Only culture warriors want to force that choice or argue we can’t expose students to foundational ideas and diverse or contemporary material. In my experience a useful tell on someone’s intentions, right or left, is what they are focused on keeping out rather than what they’re trying to include.

The current bout of controversy seemed predictable. And sure, there have been some excesses in the curriculum wars. Ensuring a diverse curriculum is one thing, purging Shakespeare on the grounds it’s irrelevant is another and a peculiar take on “relevant.” (I’ve noted before that if you can’t make Shakespeare relevant and engaging for young people – it’s got murder, treachery, and sex galore just for starters – you might want to think about your choice of line of work. The rich panoply of adaptations speak to the timelessness of the themes*.) More generally, this sure seems like a time when heterodox writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Orwell, or Arthur Miller are especially on point.

It’s also a time when people are unusually spun up. The other day someone remarked that if you teach English then you’re teaching colonialism. No word yet on what that means for Spanish teachers. You get the idea – we’ve always had these debates and while they can sometimes be exasperating in their stridency, specifics, and everything old is new again flavor, they’re also healthy in general. It’s annoying when people fail to see the subversive nature of, say, Mark Twain or freak out about literature depicting sex or “non traditional” families and relationships. It’s also not where most people are – especially not most readers. Most people agree you can do both and a gradual distillation and evolution of curricula and anything that might be considered a canon is necessary and, again, healthy from an intellectual standpoint.

The opportunity to think about relevant curriculum seems like it was something of missed opportunity with regard to Common Core in a few ways. I remember early in the Common Core-era doing some work with some Native American education leaders who were excited by the idea that the ELA standards would allow them to develop curriculum that reflected their history and traditions. That’s just one way there was an opportunity for CCSS to be about local decison-making and preference more than people realized in the torrent of misinformation about it. Some very good curriculum and materials did come out of Common Core, but you have to wonder if more support there might have helped us get to a different place in terms of the popularity of the ELA standards, the materials in front of kids, and this question of relevance.

Instructional materials remains an important issue (and one Bellwether does some work on) so hopefully more chances coming and a less strident conversation about them.

*An aside, and a pure local business promoting one at that: When the pandemic eases, I’d recommend Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton Virginia if you want to experience a lovely Virginia town with charming inns and B&B’s, great restaurants, and a taste of why Shakespeare and diversity need not be opposing forces. It’s a wonderful place to spend an evening.