In the early 90s, I attended my first academic conference. It was a graduate student conference and the theme was “Exploding the Canon.” The big project in the study of literature during that time was attempting to negotiate past the laundry list of classics that emerged from a long tradition of studying what everyone was calling the “dead white men.” From Shakespeare and Dante, through the 19th century, to Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, and Cheever, the list was a wholly exclusive one. Literature programs were largely centered around two survey courses: American Literature and British Literature. Special seminars brought the lens in more closely and we studied the body of literature of one of the dead white men.
When I moved to my PhD program in urban education, and read Ronald Takaki’s “A Different Mirror,” and continued to study this trend in trying to move beyond our narrow interpretation of history, a growing body of literature was beginning to call for black history and multicultural history to be at the center of the curriculum. The first time I encountered this notion, I reacted the way many people did.
The logic underlying much of our way of thinking is binary. We pass or we fail. Arguments have an “other side.” You are pro-life OR pro-choice. We educate away from, rather than into, complexity. (This goes to the “growth mind-set” literature that is building now. We tend to think that kids—and even ourselves—are smart, or we’re not, are good at something, or we’re not…. Did anyone else notice when Ron Berger said of a young writer yesterday “She’s not going to turn into a great writer instantly?” How many times have you heard a colleague say of a student (or found yourself saying) “Well, she’ll never be a great writer….” ) So my initial reaction to the notion of black history at the center of the canon was that it could never happen—we’re not about to move white history out. That’s quite clear. It was an ugly, passing moment, for I quickly moved through several stages of understanding, realizing that they could be there, side-by-side, then that they could be interwoven, then that it is a singular, shared history—and it is complex and we need to embrace it in all its complexity and re-think and re-build our curriculum through that lens.
That work has been going on for years—here and around the country, and great things have been happening. But the nature of this work is not only that it is complex, it is never complete.
Many of you yesterday recognized much of what you do and what we do here in Ron Berger’s work. Many of you engage in some of the practices he uses; for others his philosophy resonates and give you permission to go more deeply, to take the time to stop the train to create experiences for kids that they will remember for a lifetime. No matter where you are in this work, you need models, inspiration, motivation. The question we posed to you Monday is “How do the ideas presented this week reinforce, deepen or extend and challenge our practice individually and collectively?” We recognized much that we do in Ron Berger’s work, but we also find ways to challenge ourselves to grow.
The other piece I want to say about this work around multiculturalism—and the way that it and sustainability and our commitment to urban leadership must lie at the center of the curriculum—we are a school, and for these priorities to take root and run deep, they must be planted in the curriculum where they will grow deep roots. Those of you who have been in schools for many years know this—you can have all the special programs and clubs and relationships in the world—and when the people leading those initiatives move on, so too does their “special interest.” Those things that are planted in the curriculum tend to grow deep roots and develop staying power. So this afternoon, in departments, once again we ask you to return to the essential questions, and consider how the work you do with Diane this morning resonates in your discipline, in your curriculum, in your classroom practice.
A year ago, I was privileged to move here from Cleveland with a thoughtful, insightful colleague I knew through diversity work in the Cleveland Coalition of Independent Schools where hers was a strong and clear voice. We are so very fortunate to have her here, keeping this work alive and vital, asking critical questions, and helping us to continue to be inclusive, critical, thoughtful, affirmed and challenged.