Friday, August 24, 2007

"Learning" American Culture

There has been a lot of controversy of late about various supposedly "non-American" cultural charter schools opening up around the country. The two schools currently at the center of the hullabahoo, the Kahlil Gibran school in Brooklyn and the Ben Gamlan school in Broward County, Florida (Yes, THAT Broward County), are being accused of everything from training terrorists (KG) to violating constitutional seperation of church and state (BG).

There's much for me to comment on (the role of xenophobia and anti-sematism in this controversy, ignorance of the difference between culture and religion, the fact that people seem to forget that Kahlil Gibran was an Christian-Iranian immigrant and also an American citizen) but I'm going to address a tangential argument that critics of these schools seem to bring up. Several critics argue that American schools should only teach "American culture" and English and by introducing other cultures and languages children will have a diluted sense of allegiance to America - thus creating an army of enemy-partriots who will take over the country and spawn a generation of free-love, pro-homosexual marriage, pro-choice, stem-cell researching biracial babies...but I digress.

I don't know about all of you, but I don't have any recollection of being formally taught about "American Culture". It's not like every Wednesday afternoon at the pre-school was America Day where we all ate apple pie and dressed up like Ben Franklin. No, I learned what "American culture" is (if there is such a static, singular thing) by just turning on the TV, seeing a movie, walking down the street, and buying groceries. Everything that I'm exposed to in my day to day life reinforces "American culture", or in my case New Yorkified American culture. A young girl in this country can't get through public elementary school without reading books by Laura Ingalls, EB White, Judy Blume, or Beverly Cleary. And if those books don't provide a healthy does of "American Culture", I don't know what does. American culture is all around us and you can't avoid it if you wanted to. Although my parents put up a heroic battle, their efforts to instill some semblance of Koreanness in their daughters failed miserably. Two parents and a small band of Korean grandmothers are nothing compared to the glamour of Hollywood movies and Saturday morning cereal commericals.

Okay, so then if American Culture is pervasive and unavoidable, a critic might still argue that by emphasizing other cultures in school, you create division in the community and diminish the cohesion created by shared experience. Now, I gotta ask you - how much shared experience do I have with an upper-middle class Southern boy with divorced parents, raised in the suburbs, sent to private school, and ivy-league education? Beats me but J and I seem to be doing a pretty good job of getting along despite how dramatically different our childhoods were.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm not skeptical about these schools (really, what is the value-add of a school that only teaches ONE alternative language - and a language that a VERY small percentage of the world speaks - and never as the only language they speak) but I am saying that a lot of the people critical of the Kahlil Gibran and Ben Gamlan seem to be underground racist xenophobes who are using the schools as an opportunity to express their racism in a safe forum. It's kinda like how SARS became a good excuse for all those Asian-hating people to get their ya-yas out without being labeled an ugly racist.

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