Syed Sualeh Waziruddin
76-100 G Argument
August 8, 1997
Towards a non-Centric Curriculum
There is a disparity between many ethnic groups in the United States in terms of literacy, education, employment, and other indices (Ogbu 143, Applebee 10, 11). Whites in America have a significantly better chance of having higher literacy levels than Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans (Ogbu 143, Applebee 10, 11). What effect, if any, does curriculum have on this disparity?
American students are told about inventions made by Europeans, but how much coverage is given to advances made by peoples of other cultures? Barba reports in "Who Really Discovered Aspirin?" that most college graduates did not even know that something as commonly used as the compass was invented by a Chinese man (Barba, 27). In fact, most of the advances made by non-Europeans and women are often relegated to footnotes (Barba, 26). Several discoveries made by non-Europeans, but reported by Europeans, are credited to the European reporters (Barba, 27).
The Ancient Egyptians are treated as though they were not really Africans, although Diodorus of Sicily wrote that the Ancient Egyptians were probably the descendants of Ethiopian colonists (Wilson, 253). Ancient Egypt is often covered in a different chapter than the rest of Africa, or even as a part of the Middle East (Wilson, 254). Even when the Ancient Egyptians' contributions are mentioned, the influence of the ideas of the Ancient Egyptians on both Europeans and Africans is ignored (Wilson, 254). There is a tendency to ignore the ethnicity of non-European inventors.
The curriculum is in fact "Eurocentric". This means that when it discusses the history and development of various fields and world culture in general, it dwells only on European contributions and influences. The curriculum in fact implicitly promotes racist ideas * namely, the idea that only Whites have the intellectual ability and intelligence to succeed in the sciences, as well as in the arts and humanities.
This racism does not restrict its manifestations to contributions to world knowledge and culture. The presentation of non-European cultures is often only in the context of those cultures' relationships to Europe. For example, the African kingdoms of previous centuries are often mentioned only in the context of the slave-trade (Wilson, 254). "Everyone is now taught about the great civilizations of Rome and Greece, but how many people learn about the mighty empires of Ethiopia and Ghana?" (Vann and Kunjufu, 490).
African resistance to colonialism is often ignored, especially when it was successful. For example, Menelik II's successful defense of Ethiopia against the Italians at Adwa, or the Algerian war of independence, are often ignored (Wilson, 254-55). Often the presentation of the history of African Americans starts with slavery (Vann and Kunjufu, 490).
Discussions about Africa in most American high school textbooks often concentrate only on the problems of the continent. The photographs are limited to "camels...soldiers, and [Nelson] Mandela," and not African cities or industries (Wilson, 256). Also ignored are colonial causes of some of these problems (Wilson, 256), such as the civil strife caused by displacements of populations and the institutionalization of inequitable power structures. For example, rarely is it mentioned that a number of the ethnic conflicts in African countries stem from the fact that the borders of these countries often reflect colonial zones of control and not the territories of different ethnic groups.
This bias in coverage has several effects which contribute to the disparity problems in literacy and employment levels for the different ethnic groups in America. Andersen in "Worldmath Curriculum: Fighting Eurocentricism in Mathematics" discusses one of these effects:
"Every aspect of the educational process and every facet of industrial and technological activity must convince the majority of people especially people of color that they are biologically, intellectually, and /or psychologically incapable of understanding mathematics" (351-352).
The Eurocentricism in the curriculum disinterests minorities in subjects such as mathematics and science, as they feel that only Europeans have the "gifts" to succeed in these fields.
Another consequence of the Eurocentric bias in American high school curricula is that White students, especially males, are given false impressions of their superiority over other races (Barba, 26) The neglect of non-European contributions to world knowledge leads to a low level of self-esteem among minorities (Vann and Kunjufu, 490). The consequences would only be theoretical if it were not for minority authors who have elaborated on their personal experiences with these consequences. Annette Henry in "The Empty Shelf and Other Curricular Challenges of Teaching Children of African Descent: Implications for Teacher Practice" says:
"...these lessons that perpetuated notions of Black people as inferior and primitive, I can still painfully recall shrinking at my desk, wanting to disappear.... School was not a place where I could ask any practical or critical questions about the ambiguities in my own life as a Black child in a White Society" (Henry, 299).
It may be important to understand how the curriculum came to be so Eurocentric in the first place. If Eurocentric curricula downplay the contributions of non-European peoples and if they promote racist attitudes, how did they come to exist? Several theories have been put forward to explain how this system came to dominate American high school curricula. Rod Janzen in "Five Paradigms of Ethnic Relations" says non-Europeans where never fully accepted as "Americans" by Whites (349-350). They feared that America would become less European, become "physically darker, less Christian religiously, and less European with regard to its understanding of the best way to design social-institutions" (349). Whites, wanting the non-European Americans to become more like them, may have designed the curriculum to be Eurocentric in order to assimilate the non-Europeans into what the Whites saw as the "true" America a European, Christian America (349).
Other authors suggest an even stronger form of racism as the cause of the Eurocentric bias. Marilee Rist in "Ethnocentric Education" suggests that the Eurocentric curriculum was established to prevent minorities from challenging the power of Whites in America (29). John Ogbu in "Literacy and Schooling in Subordinate Cultures: the Case of Black Americans" claims that racism in the education system stems from a caste-like dimension of the American social structure (140). According to Ogbu, the discernible difference in literacy rates between Whites and Blacks in America is caused by various forms of racism in the American social system (140-145). This results in the establishment of "ceilings" to chances for attaining high literacy rates for minorities ceilings because minorities cannot progress in society because they are held back by systematic racism (140-145).
An increasingly popular solution to the problem of the Eurocentric bias in American high school curricula is to shift the curricular viewpoint from a Eurocentric one to an Afrocentric one. Similarly, Hispanic-centric, Native American-centric, and other similarly-centric programs have also been proposed (Janzen, 349-352). In this paper the term "non-European centric" will be used for the proposals which use a non-European culture as the culture whose contributions and influences are emphasized. A clarification of nomenclature must also be made. Afrocentric, and other non-European centric curricula, are often substituted for multicultural, and vice-versa. In this essay, these two groups of words will be treated as almost antithetical ideas. Afrocentric and other non-European centric refer to an African or African-American (or, alternatively, Hispanic, Native American, etc.) world view, whereas multicultural will refer to a world view which (at least in its intent) is not centered around any ethnic group.
Non-European centric proposals ultimately propose that members of different ethnic groups be separated, at least for some hours during the school day, so that they can receive education centered around their ethnic group (Gill, 574). Emphasis will be placed on contributions to society by members of their own ethnic groups. It is hoped by the proponents of non-European centric curricula that this specific emphasis will raise the self-esteem of the students, and that they will develop an interest in different fields (particularly in mathematics and science) which will help bridge the gap between minority groups in these areas (Gill, 571-576 ; Janzen, 350-351). This calls for a certain level of autonomy for each ethnic group in terms of high school curriculum, as it is assumed students can derive the most benefit from receiving education centered around the community they identify with most.
There are a few problems with this theory, however. One is that there may be a decrease in the efficiency of societal communication due to the lack of uniformity of education and the fostering of divisiveness (Janzen, 351). Similar curricula can help students from different ethnic groups understand each other better, and the increased socialization may similarly foster greater racial harmony. Another problem is that these non-Eurocentric approaches will not eliminate the potential racism which could arise from teaching a world view centered around any group. If minorities feel that their culture is indeed superior to the European culture, they may develop prejudiced attitudes against Whites. Racial divisiveness is obviously not beneficial to any society.
The problem with Eurocentric curricula is not that they are centered around Europe, but that they are centered around any particular group. This problem persists in Afrocentric and other non-European centric proposals, as they are still centered around an ethnic group. This centricism is what causes the racial divisiveness which has been a key factor of the problem of the disparity in literacy rates.
If the contributions of ethnic groups should not be overemphasized, should they be underemphasized? If the contributions of all ethnic groups to world knowledge and culture are recognized, students of all cultures and communities can build self-esteem and become interested in fields which Whites presently dominate in America. This cannot be done if the ethnic identities are ignored altogether, as recognizing the ethnicity of contributors to world knowledge is an opportunity to build the self-esteem of students from the ethnic groups. Not centering curriculum, while meaning not overplaying any culture, does not mean underplaying any culture either.
So what is needed is a curriculum which attempts to be free from presenting a world-view centered about any culture. Of course, although this is possible in theory, there are bound to be some prejudices entering textbooks and curricula, due to the fallibility of the humans who design curricula and teach students. Is it possible, however, to compensate (to some extent) for these subconscious tendencies?
An effort must be made to teach teachers about how to be conscious of biased views in educational materials. Teachers must be better informed of the Eurocentric biases in American high school curricula, and they must appreciate the direct relationships between this bias and the disparity between different ethnic groups in literacy rates and economic achievements in America. They must then try to ensure that the material does not overemphasize the contributions of any culture, and does not ignore the contributions any culture either. It is hoped that these measures can change the ethnocentricity of American curricula in a practical way, and the impacts of these views on the disparity in literacy rates between ethnic groups in America can then be decreased.
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