Phi Beta Cons

University of Minnesota’s Teacher-Education Redesign Initiative

Katherine Kersten, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, has an excellent track record spotting radical ideas floating around Minnesota campuses. She first alerted us last month to the University of Minnesota’s Teacher Education Redesign Initiative and the draft report of the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group. (George Leef wrote about this situation here.)
The Task Force draft deserves a close look. It reflects perfectly a mindset and line of thought that runs through major education schools from Cal State, Los Angeles, to Teachers College, Columbia. It summarizes a program that in its own words should be central and obligatory in teacher education.
Let’s start with the chief authors, all of whom are University of Minnesota education professors. Tim Lensmire conducts research focusing on “how white people learn to be white in our white supremacist society.” Bic Ngo studies how “immigrant students are shaped by dynamic power relations as they play out at the intersection(s) of race, ethnicity, class and gender” using “critical, cultural and feminist theories.” Committee chair Michael Goh, whose background is in psychological counseling, has long pushed the idea of “cultural competence” as a mental-health issue for minorities and seems to have spearheaded its “centrality” in the program.
“Our future teachers will be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression,” they write. And: “Every faculty member at our university that trains our teachers must comprehend and commit to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently, frame their teaching and course foci accordingly.”
Not surprisingly, they come to the conclusion that future teachers must understand the following:

  • the myth of meritocracy in the United States
  • how institutional racism works in schools
  • the historical connections between scientific racism, intelligence testing, and assumptions of fixed mental capacity
  • alternative explanations for mobility (and lack of it)
  • the history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class, Christian meanings and values
  • the history of white racism, with special focus on current colorblind ideology
  • What to make of  a view that is somehow both racist and colorblind? Well, there are six stages in the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, the paradigm the Task Force features. Denial is the least sensitive, “benign on the surface (‘live and let live’), but potentially genocidal when pressed into cross-cultural contact.” Thinking such thoughts as “What I really need to know about is art and music” or “All I need to know about is politics and history — I can figure out the rest of it as I go along” are signs of trouble. An “inability to construe cultural difference” may indicate mental deficiency or deviancy.
    The Task Force paper prescribes corrective writing exercises:

    Autoethnography should reflect appreciation for how dominant pedagogical styles, school curricula, behavioral expectations, personal prejudices of school personnel (among other things) often convey overt and covert messages that devalue the culture, heritage, and identity of minority students.
    Teachers first have to discover their own privilege, oppression, or marginalization and also are able to describe their cultural identity.

    The writing, it says, is

    not about right or wrong answers. It is about confronting one’s ability to understand the lives of others, people teachers may have to teach some day, and the capacity to empathize with their backgrounds. It is about the development of cultural empathy, if you will.

    If you will. But the Minnesota program exhibits no empathy nor any philosophical tools that might nurture it. The tone is coercive, and the means of enforcement are all too clear. Remember that “cultural competence” is “obligatory” when reading the draft’s conclusion, which asks:

    What if students fail to meet outcomes for lack of skill or motivation? Develop clear steps and procedures for working with non-performing students, including a remediation plan.

    No wonder so many able and bright young people choose not to pursue education degrees.
    Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council and president of the Center for Education Studies.

    Gilbert T. Sewall is currently a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Since 1989, he has been director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. Sewall is a former history ...

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