“They made us accessories to ignorance!”
By Jorge D. H. Prósperi 2020
This essay began some 30 years ago while teaching as an adjunct at Wayne State University College of Education in Detroit, Michigan. The course was required at the time for College of Ed students as novice teachers were walking into highly diverse classrooms and changing communities with a multitude of challenges regarding students and families that were no longer homogeneous.
A key question and challenge for all Colleges of Education in the 1970s was whether the mostly homogenous novice teacher pool of graduates would be prepared and ready, beyond teaching content, to deal with the socio-cultural challenges of a heterogeneous student body – as well as their families and communities that would be waiting.
Teacher ability and methods by which to teach (deliver) content of a subject matter was the emphasis in most Colleges of Ed – always had been. It was a delivery system of pouring information into the chambers of student heads – not necessarily knowledge and/or wisdom.
The dogma “We teach young minds!” was often overheard at parent conferences without fully recognizing that the human mind was capable of venturing far beyond just regurgitate information – memorizing names, dates, phrases and taking standardized tests.
I posit that the teaching profession was not aware that the highly sophisticated brain was capable of wondrous possibilities requiring brain-based teaching, learning, curricula and classrooms. Often teachers taught as they had been taught with the infamous “LECTURE METHOD” front and center. “The Heads” were being asked to sit quietly and still in uncomfortable seats, pay attention beyond human capacity, listen (without daydreaming), take notes (without being taught how), repeat, recite, memorize and then regurgitate. Students were being taught as a collective noun – as if they all came from the same family and zip code.
But our diversified brain is resilient. It was ever ready, from kindergarten on, to multi-task – curiously inquiring – wanting to know far beyond echoing content. It could address historical awareness and understanding in order to deal with the multicultural-racial-socio-economic-political-environmental influences that impacted not only teaching but learning. So the teaching profession was challenged with provocative questions and most of all a calling “to change in the 21st century.”
Colleges of Ed began to notice the changes in society – that all students were not the same – that each child was unique regardless of whether they came from rural, urban and suburban school districts.* There was also awareness that school districts differed dramatically – constructed bubbles of reality with different educational objectives declaring different opportunities of worth by way of different financial support, curriculum mapping, teaching-learning environments, parental involvement, as well as School Board Members, administration and faculty declaring different district visions, missions and and personal growth. Education was all over the local, state and national map. There was no unified national educational agenda nor agreement on such.
*By districts I include all Independent, Private, Faith-Based-Religious, Single Gender, Voucher, Magnate and Home School Programs. Regardless of the schooling genre, the captive audiences are still THE CHILDREN.
Diversity and its Literacy had now been added to the conumdrm – to the question of what constituted a quality education in America as it approached the 21st Century in a world that had ALREADY CHANGED. What did that High School Diploma represent as it related to a quality of life for its citizens?
I remember discussions as to what to call the course trying to sidestep or avoid any political backlash. How about just emphasizing Celebrating and Embracing Cultures? That is what schools were doing at the time – addressing diversity via culture days. As hard as we tried, there was no way around it. Diversity and its Literacy were calling and needed to be confronted with academic vigor, integrity and pedagogical courage. Novice teachers needed to become aware of the diversity of their students as much as knowledgeable about teaching Math, Science and Language Arts.
In time, other college departments felt it necessary to, at least recommend the Diversity course as a token gesture, not required. Some departments had not yet connected the socio-cultural dots leaving students after graduating to learn on their own about difference and otherness. Whether Citizenship had a moral compass connected to justice and democracy was not on the radar.
Nevertheless, all departments were under pressure to at least mention Diversity Literacy as somewhat connected and relevant to the overall college curricula and perhaps even significant to their student’s chosen professions – perhaps even connected to their citizenship. Each department going about awareness via their own comfortable established unilateral journey with no need or reasons to change.
The college juggernaut: Admit, standardize teaching, testing and graduate- keep those turnstiles moving. Build the coffers via alumni and grants, research, publish or parish. The “Art of Teaching and Learning be Damned! – as well as any connections to citizenship!”
The wheels of social change move at a turtle’s pace, at times with the head safely implanted within its shell. But the forces of Diversity and Change could not be ignored and were overwhelming.
Diversity was knocking on each college admission’s door. The change reflecting what was taking place globally. College admission numbers were dramatically changing from a homogenous to a heterogenous pool of candidates. Even college instructors of color were beginning to walk the hallow halls of higher education. Increasing numbers of students of color were earning Masters and Doctorates walking in the same lanes that once were only available to some.
Corporations were also noticing that a diverse pool of talented graduates were becoming available for America’s Diverse workforce – not to mention a diverse population of consumers that would surely impact Wall Street.
“Hey! Diversity is also good for Busine$$!” Ka-Ching, Ka-Ching – that magical sound that seems to always draw attention of suppliers-demanders and the survival of fittest of the fail-safe citizenry of plenty .
We were all headed into the 21st Century . . . like it or not, believe it or not, vote for it or not into a world that was increasingly diversified. For America this meant coming to terms with historical-socio-cultural-political-economic national issues – not to mention immigration and lingering constructed social -isms and phobias. The journey would AGAIN be difficult and painful.
Without even knowing it or admitting it, we had already dramatically changed. The challenge was, as it had always been from the inception of America, how to deal with Diversity and Change. How to deal with that lingering equal but separate paradigm?
The students in the new course were not only future novice teachers but students representing the school of engineering, medicine, technology, nursing, law, art, business and social sciences. Everyone on the first day seem to have that same look on their faces . . . “Let’s get through this PC class ASAP!”
To have graduate students of all ages together representing different departments/professions was a major challenge as not everyone was on the same content page as far as areas of interests. But the ‘differences’ proved to be of significant relevance.
The students themselves represented Diversity on many levels. What they had in common was that they were going to become professionals by choice, design and passion. At least that was the hope.
From the very beginning some students felt that they totally knew what Diversity was all about – totally convinced. Others felt they knew the subject matter because of their direct connection via their personal identity – affinity group. “Hey chico, I’m Latino, bi-racial and gay! I know all there is to know about Diversity!” Snap, snap!
Some felt that they were about to become victims for being white – bracing themselves for a dose of “white bashing” by students of color. Some thought that they needed clarification and were genuinely curious wanting to know more of what they felt was never learned during the first 12 years of their schooling. All of us buckled up for a journey into uncharted waters and destinations.
I have often written about this class because of the rich experiences that unfolded for the students, myself, university and the community the students would one day serve – be it rural, urban or suburban.
It should also be mentioned that all of the students came from different zip codes returning to families, communities, that in part, had influenced their attitudes, impressions, beliefs and thinking about difference and otherness. Family, schooling, region, neighbors, friends, colleagues had provided a social curriculum impacting dispositions, not only about others, but self identity.
Several textbooks were used over the years in order to provide depth and breadth on the subject matter. These textbooks, aside from anchoring substance and relevance, provided students with a multitude of exercises on identity.
Aside from the textbooks, the students were provided with a plethora of poignant articles, research papers, videos and guest panelists. It was a tsunami of Diversity Literacy presented through Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking Methods, Critical Race Theories and Journaling. The course was constructed so that each students could “run” but not “hide.”
The class began by asking a few essential questions that would be present throughout the journey. Relentless inquiry would be our constant motivation and advocacy.
- What is Diversity?
- How do we come to such definition(s) and thinking about Diversity?
- What is Diversity Literacy?
- What does it mean to live in a diverse society?
- What are definitions and connections between concepts as Diversity, Culture, Society and Identity?
- How do we develop an understanding and awareness of a multi-cultural society – where does one begin – family – school – job?
- What are social factors that impact a person’s identity?
- What are social factors that impact our dispositions about the identity of others?
- Is there such a phenomenon as a Social Curriculum?
- How to we develop intercultural and multicultural fluency?
- What are social constructs pertaining to social -isms and phobias?
- How are social constructs learned and maintained?
- Can social constructs be deconstructed?
- What are the relationships between overt, covert, aversive and institutional racism, sexism and xenophobia pertaining to power and control?
- Whose responsibility is it to change and/or adapt to a changing diverse global world in the 21st Century?
- How do we overcome fear and ignorance about Diversity?
- How do we listen and engage with confidence dealing with difficult conversations about Diversity without appropriating, insulting, pandering, condescending nor silencing – while keeping in mind that dialogue and discourse are not about winning a debate but seeking awareness and understanding?
- What are 21st Century Critical Thinking tools that provide pathways to awareness, responsibility and advocacy as citizens? When and where are such tools learned and honed?
- Is Diversity static or dynamic – solid or fluid – absolute or boundless – unidirectional or multidirectional – black & white or multicolored?
- Is Diversity reflected in the Constitution of the United States, Bill of Rights, Rule of Law and tenets/principles of Citizenship?
All of such questions were addressed by reflective/analytical papers on textbook/articles readings, experiential-collaborative exercises- activities and ongoing journaling that students could share with others by choice.
As the class came to a close, the students were provided with two opportunities to voice their reactions to the class. One was a formal College of Ed evaluation questionnaire that was provided and forwarded confidentially to the department and eventually the findings shared with the instructor.
The other means that students were provided was by way of a homework assignment to make a statement in writing with sections to be shared during the final class regarding their personal experience as to the relevance of the class, any meaningful cathartic moment(s) related to the readings and/or discussions, new learning, essential questions answered – left unanswered and how the class could improve. I asked for the same authenticity, veracity and courage that I felt had been a staple of the course and that had been provided by instructor and modeled during each class.
As a qualitative researcher, I keep their reaction papers as it provided findings on student perspectives and also how best to change the class from semester to semester. The following are some of the comments shared:
“As a white person, I had never thought or even heard about White Privilege or entitlements. It came as a surprise the first time I heard the concept. I felt threatened and uncomfortable. I did not have a way to respond because I had never had been involved in such a conversation, especially not with people of color. It never came up in our Engineering program or in any of our math classes. I wondered why this never came up in high school. Maybe because I graduated from a mostly white school with all white teachers? . . . I don’t know . . . but I feel cheated, uninformed.”
“I thought I knew what Diversity was – a matter of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures. But it’s so much more. I have to admit that most of my family and friends also believe they know what Diversity is all about. We tend to think of it as the “Once upon a time at Ellis Island” experience, our European backgrounds given my Polish, Austrian and Italian roots. I think we tend to have a casual approach to Diversity as just acclimating. Being white, you don’t have to think about it. It’s really someone’s else problem and pain. The class has been enlightening and yet painful.”
“Why weren’t we taught counterstories during our middle and high school years?! We took history for granted and believed whatever we were told moving from chapter to chapter without pausing to deal with the realities of the trauma that human beings suffered. I feel cheated as a student and citizen to learn about the depths of oppression as a college student. What else don’t we know?”
“I still wonder about the constituencies not part of our class that remain voiceless and invisible. We did not have any Native American representation nor anyone speaking on behalf to the youngest, eldest and people with special needs in our society. We also never touched upon what was brought up in class regarding domestic violence, sexism and chauvinism. This class should focus on the full range of Diversity.”
“As a white man and future Social Studies teacher, I am saddened by the lack of candidness and the lack of courage by my colleagues to tell students the truth about our past. We have painted slaveholders, plunderers, imperialists and captains of industry as national heroes with women totally left out of the chapters. We need to do better as to the selection of books and materials.”
“I feel that History and Social Studies teachers lied to us, told us parts of stories without ever hearing other people’s voices as if they never existed. What were they afraid of or were they just teaching as they were taught?”
“I don’t believe that we ever had any emphasis or serious discussions in elementary, middle or high school on White Privilege, racism, sexism and prejudice. It seems as if we were asked to ignore what we eventually discovered on our own, but without the tools to deal with it. While I am grateful for having taken the class, today I feel empty as a citizen and realize that each of us are responsible for keeping justice, hope and love alive. It truly does come down to personal awareness, reflection and decisions.”
“As a young white guy, I can’t wait to debate some of the social constructs with my white friends who think that all of this is a bunch of PC bunk. I feel that I now have language – sources, references and knowledge bases to share with relevance and not speak through opinions. I may not change minds, but I feel that I can now better discuss difficult issues with reason, authority and confidence. I also no longer feel threatened or fear talking about such issues with people of color – maybe do more listening rather than talking.”
“As I shared, I come from a military family with many of my uncles in the Army and Marines. I feel that some of them would think that this class is un-American with all of us a bunch of pinko-commie-liberals. I was raised to believe in only one absolute definition for patriotism – without discussion or options. The cry was blind “loyalty up and loyalty down. My conflict is now with my family. Much of what I have learned in the class I can’t discuss with them because they will not be open to such thinking. It makes me feel disconnected. I wonder how many of us feel the same way upon realizing that our prejudices and biases were learned at home?”
“I did not know about the horrors of the holocaust and the traumatic after- effects. I did not know the depths of trauma of colonialism and slavery. I did not know about sexism and the women’s movement. I did not know about what occurred after the Civil War. I also did not know about the people who should have been highlighted – the unsung heroes who deserve our respect and admiration. The class was liberating and at the same time sorrowful.”
“I am ashamed that I participated in our high school yearly Culture Days. They were insulting shams. First generation of Latinos, Asians, Middle Eastern, African-American students paraded on display in their ethnic attire breaking piñatas in the gym, while their parents brought exotic foods. There was no explanation about their history, heritage, personal stories as immigrants and their migrations. It was a half day of white washing diversity without ever dealing with issues of oppression and biases towards others. The next day we returned to normalizing and maintaining the ignorance.”
“As a Middle School teacher, we should make Diversity Literacy a requirement across the curriculum involving every content area. Our students are young but nevertheless evolving citizens who one day will be responsible for solving social issues and for voting. They will need to be well informed. They will require critical thinking tools to make good local, national and global decisions on behalf of our democracy and quality of life problems.”
“As a future doctor, I needed to hear about the diversity of future patients. There isn’t one profession represented in this classroom that will not be impacted by diversity. When a patient enters my office, I now feel that their diversity matters. I hope that I eventually will work at a hospital with people who feel the same way about their employees and those they serve.”
I believe that the School of Nursing is preparing well focusing on required medical knowledge but also what we call “bedside manners” – that is observation, listening and interpreting skills so that we are better prepared to provide awareness, empathy, tolerance and compassion towards our patients. These are some of the characteristics that I feel we have been talking about that we want our children and each citizen to demonstrate towards each other. For me, “caring for others” is not only a matter of learned substance and style but attributes that I feel many of us inherently have as human beings.
I would strongly recommend that The School of Business consider requiring all of its undergrad students to take this course. The emphasis on accounting, business management theories, bottom line profits, and now technology, lacks focus on how ethical decisions are made by corporations that seriously impact communities. An example is the processes by which corporations decide to build or close corporate offices and plants which often determines the fate of a city and work force. (Speaking of the late 1970s) Detroit, Oak Park, Highland Park, Warren, Flint are facing critical shifts in population and corporate decisions whether to close, move their business to another country or reinvest. Thousands of jobs are on the line. My concern is also the increasing number of non-profit organizations to deal with the void and cut-backs of federal, state and local funding for basic human needs. The ripple effects of business decisions impact all human services and what we often mention in the class, the quality of life.
“As an artist and Art Teacher, I fully affirm the value of difference and otherness. Diversity is what art is all about, without restrictions. It is what we see and feel each time we walk through a museum. The challenge for me is how to instill the richness of Diversity that art provides in the lives of the students without fear and reservations to explore and discover. I am concerned how little value – funding – school districts prioritize for the Fine and Performing arts.”
“As a white – future lawyer, hearing the voices of my fellow students, who are not white, introduced new interpretations of justice and how the law can cut both ways – especially in respect to access, pro-active representation and equity. I am grateful to those of you who had the courage to share your stories about profiling and currently doubt the tenets of the law. I realized how painful it was for some of you to divulge personal experiences of injustices resulting in personal tragedies. They were stories that I would not have experienced but will ever remember.”
“I was impressed by the gay students who spoke openly about their traumatic journeys. Living in fear and being ostracized by family, school, church and society. I was made aware of a new kind of courage.”
“There aren’t many class experiences that linger that after class I wanted to discuss with my wife and friends. Even while driving home I thought about what we discussed – how it made me question my thinking and attitudes – how it was impacting my growth as a father, citizen and human being. Each reading became more significant because I wanted to know more. Each class seemed to introduce new information that I feel I should have known long ago and want my son and nephews to know.”
“As a black student, I did think about how other groups felt oppressed or had suffered. I thought that my pain was only mine as an African American woman. We tend to get engrossed, perhaps rightfully so, in our own victimization and forget about others – the depth of their pain. We need to keep our minds alert and open regarding victimization because it has no color or gender. I never thought about how racism also degrades, diminishes and victimizes white people dehumanizing them as well.”
“I never thought about Columbus Day, who is on monuments or the faces on our currency. I guess I always took such things for granted. After a couple of weeks in the class, I began to notice and became aware that we had terrible examples of people who were being recognized as heroes and other people who remained invisible and worthy of our respect.”
“Being Jewish I understood about oppression and genocide. My family made sure of that. The words and their meaning were not new to me. But what was new was the depth of oppression of other people. The horrific history of slavery and Native Americans were brief chapters in our history books. It’s been a painful six weeks but I needed to hear this and need to remember that all of us, in our own ways, have walked a trail of tears.”
“This course only affirmed what I feel every day, every morning as a black parent watching my children go off to school. The hug I give my high school son is tighter and I make sure that he hears me fully when I ask him to be careful. I know he is tired of hearing it, as I am tired of telling him. But I live in a country that makes it a daily requirement.”
“I did not want to take this class. It was not about Math or Science and thought that it would be a waste of time. I was wrong and probably will never be the same regarding what I learned about difference.”
“As a feminist, I discovered the similarities of sexism, racism and their relationship to power and control. It broadened by scope of knowledge, language and thinking. What I am now left with is, how do we extend this type of conversation on a national level? Who is responsible for such leadership?”
“I truly believed in Meritocracy – fairness based on ability, work ethic and proven quality of competence over time. I really never challenged the notion whether everyone has an equal shot at the American Dream. I think that this was naiveté on my part. I never thought about an opportunity not having worth if it is not fully provided. It was an awakening to learn about the degree of “institutional Nepotism” – “Institutional Incest” – “Good-Old-Boys Networks” that occur in each of our professions and politics. How do we come to terms with fairness versus blind favoritism? How do we determine opportunities of worth? How do we maintain ethical practices and principles as a society? Does it all come down to a personal ethical choice?”
“As a white man, I never thought of myself as privileged. I was uncomfortable with the term and did not want to hear it. It was irritating. I did not create nor condone slavery. It was hurtful to read of its dimensions. It was painful to admit. I was raised on a farm and taught not to hate others. But my friends and community were different – blatantly racist. I just went along, never stopped them from using racist jokes and language. I felt obligated to follow and echo the hate. Racism was everywhere – in the classroom, in the hallways, in the locker room, main-street little shops, hardware and dinners. It was an unwritten code of thinking. I now understand that my silence made me an accessory. I particularly thank the students of color who made a concentrated effort to explain that their perspective was not about white bashing, judging and blaming white people but about how we can live together in the future. We do have choices and need to do better. I feel I can better do my share as a parent and citizen.”
“I feel liberated! Finally a class that did not shy away from reality and the truth that we experience on a daily basis but tend to ignore or deny. I enjoyed the exercise “outside circle listening – the inside circle voicing” generating different constituencies to voice perspectives without interruptions. I think we learned just how difficult and demanding it is to begin a conversation about highly personal sensitive social issues. These discussions need to begin at the middle school level because they only get increasingly more difficult to discuss as adults.”
Postscript that should have been a Preface: Citizens, as adults, do not have opportunities to take a six weeks course on Diversity Literacy. All of us go through some 12 years of formal schooling casually learning about our ancestral-immigration-stories to America, to whatever degree connected to our identity(-ies) – constructed and impacted by a multi-socio-cultural-ever-present curriculum, that in part, is highly complex, dynamic, multifaceted, interconnected, uniquely different and made available to each of us by some formal/informal influences – at times even by happenstance.
Doesn’t our common humanness and citizenship deserve better?