Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hidden Dangers in Multiculturalism: Identity, Culture and Education in the Liberal State

This post is by no means as interesting as its title makes it sound. It is a post about a course that I have decided to take in place of the previously mentioned sociology course which was held at an inconvenient time. The Multiculturalism course is part of the curriculum for the MA in Jewish Education, and the students are all future and current educators of various ages. The professor immigrated from Argentina many years ago - he has a wide smile, very severe sarcasm, and he carries a pocket watch that must be somewhat imprecise, as he constantly has to ask the students to tell him the time, even after he's already looked at his timepiece.
Although I hadn't done the reading for the class as I was showing up at its second session, I found the conversation deeply interesting and am looking forward to spending my Sunday afternoons talking about what I think is one of the most real and important issues of our and all time: identity, and how we can acknowledge our own and others' identities respectfully and truthfully. Our teacher defines multiculturalism as "the call to overcome the way we think about each other that is so natural to us that we don't even think about it."

We talked about the historical transformation in the Western World from defining oneself solely according to a fixed social position to a recognition of citizen dignity as social heirarchies collapsed during the time of the French Revolution and thereafter. Suddenly (or perhaps more accurately, over the course of a long time) sense of self depended on one's personal definition and less on birth - people were able to chose more about themselves, and Dignity was grante to all, rather than the notion of "honor" being granted to some. St. Augustine declared that G-d is in everything you see, and therefore G-d is in everyone - this upgrades humans - all humans - to partially divine.
We discussed how the nation-state requires a different kind of organization and sets of loyalty and identity. Rather than kings identifying with kings, members of a particular nation-state identify as citizens of that nation-state and have obligations to that nation-state. In Feudalism, the idea was that the nobility had a respobsibility to the lives of the peasants, and poverty was a personal problem of the nobility that they could chose to act on, or not. In a more modern society, there is the notion of human rights, which changes things, if not entirely, then at least substantially, because citizenship is not about depending on someone else's honor or goodness, but about being granted certain rights by law (and having legal recourse if you aren't receiving them). Of course, this was, and is, not always the case, even in a nation-state (think women, slaves, etc.)
We talked about how the principle of universal identity (that is to say that everyone has an identity that is valuable) can be interpreted in two very divergent ways: everyone is equal because everyone has a valuable identity, and therefore everyone should be treated the same OR because everyone has a valuable and different identity, everyone is different and should be treated differently. Both interpretations can be used for good (as in universal education or recognizing the special needs of different individuals) or for bad (as in not recognizing special needs or talents, or treating people unfairly and attributing it to their difference). It can be argued that if schools in particular treat everyone the same, there isn't space to create a unique identity. But at the same time, if schools treat students differently, they may not all have access to the same opportunities.
We spent a long time on the difference between the public and the private sphere - the idea that one should or is permitted to act differently at home than elsewhere (like Jews of the Emancipation who were 'Jews in the home, but not in the street') We imagine that there is a clear separation between the public and the private, and that no one cares what you do in your private life, but in the public sphere you need to behave with the rules of the public. However, the lines are not nearly so clear (for instance, what I do on my computer, in the home, is actually rather public). And there is a big question about when it is appropriate for the government to interfere in the private. For instance: take the case of domestic or child abuse. In some cultures, it is frowned upon for the government to step in to what is seen as such a private issue, while in others it is seen as immoral for the government NOT to step in. And one student in the class noted that the public sphere intrudes into the private sphere much more often with regards to lower class or minority people - the government might more quickly intervene in the home of an immigrant family than an Anglo family because they are quicker to assume that abuse is happening (whether or not it actually is). In other words, the government might participate in racial or socio-economic profiling and assume that they need to step in more often in lower-income areas or areas with cultures that are different than the mainstream, and as a result those sectors of the population have much less separation between private and public than groups of people that are considered less threatening or suspicious.
We talked about the notion of "social cohesion" - if difference is allowed or encouraged in the public sphere, what is the glue that holds a society together? It is this question that leads some to argue that there needs to be a "core curriculum" in schools so that children are all taught the same "cannon" and form the same values and cultural referents, which makes them all a part of the community. On the other hand - what gets to be the cannon, and which community are the students being socialized to join? And is that fair?
Our teacher encouraged us to recognize that whatever seems natural to us is cultural, including the values of democracy, separation of state, etc. and to know that "liberalism is also a fighting creed" - when liberals wish to create a space that is accepting of everyone, they are forcing (or socializing, or encouraging) their values of respect for all cultures onto people who perhaps don't have those values. And who gets to say that their values are the right ones? On the other hand, if you reject all that seems to be natural to you, then you have no basis on which to base your opinions, or even your life. So you have to stick to what you believe in, but be aware that others might not share your values.
Some more interesting quotes from today's class include:

"Minority has nothing to do with numbers - it has to do with marginalization."
"The problem with immigration is that bodies move faster than minds"
"Our language gives us tools for racism that we have stopped noticing because of our need to communicate."

Anyway, it seems like it is going to be a great class, and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it in the future.

No comments: