Wednesday, August 1, 2012

AFFIRMING DIVERSITY: are you serious?

Sonia Nieto's celebration of "multicultural education," has become something of an educational classic. Even now, over 30 years later, many professors of education think she urges something worthy. This, despite her prescription relying on two obvously false assumptions. First, that cultural values can be successfully married despite often irreconcilable differences. And second, that the world's cultures all are enthusiastic about tolerance. Many aren't. 

Professor Nieto urges educators to "affirm diversity?" She tells them that "cultural, ... differences can and should be accepted, respected, and used as a basis for learning and teaching." At first blush, that sounds good. We can learn much from one another. But for the professors prescription to work, it requires every culture to be tolerant of the practices and values of every other culture. Trouble is, in the real world cultures often clash. And, more specifically, many clash with cultures like ours, that have been heavily influenced by the renaissance and humanism.

Consider the intolerant and dogmatic Wahhabi sect of Islam. The religious view that dominates Saudi Arabian culture. These folks see the world as divided into the good guys who subscribe to their hard right version of the Sunni school of Islam, and Godless apostates and heretics.  So how do they think they deal with unbelievers? They believe they must be silenced. And if they must be flogged, jailed, or even liquidated to silence them, so be it,.

Think this an exaggeration? Not at all.  In 2004 a Saudi royal study group found that the kingdom's religious studies curriculum "encourages violence toward others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the 'other.'  Embarrassed by this finding, high ranking Saudi officials promised to eliminate such intolerant dogmatism from their curriculum. But years later, when the Washington Post analyzed "reformed" Saudi religion texts, they found the self-same, intolerant preachments. After all, if you are in possession of the absolute immutable truth, what earthly - much less heavenly - reason is there to tolerate error? 

Let's imagine Professor Nieto teaching in Saudi Arabia and following her own prescription. She not only accepts and respects all religious points of view, but makes affirming their right to exist a basis for all her teaching. What do you think her fate would be? And before you decide, consider that in 2005, a Saudi teacher cautiously suggested that Jews and the New Testament could be viewed positively. He was not only fired, but sentenced to 750 lashes and sent to prison. (He was eventually pardoned, but only following intense international protests.) 

If Professor Nieto actually "affirmed diversity" in a Saudi classroom  she would doubtless suffer an even worse fate. Perhaps a thousand lashes, then beheading. And since this is a misogynistic culture and Professor Nieto is a woman, a more severe outcome would be especially likely. One wonders, would the good professor still "affirm diversity" if she found herself teaching in some intolerant pesthole? Would she stick to her prescription if it put her own neck on the chopping block? 

Perhaps you're thinking Saudi Arabia is unique. That it is an island of intolerance in a tolerant world. Think again. In the real world intolerance is so common that tolerance is a novelty. And this is especially true where broad masses of people are poor, ignorant and believers in one or another religion that asserts that it, and only it, commands THE truth. 

Also, let's not forget that cultures sometimes define themselves, at least in part, by their rejection of, hatred of, and aggression toward other cultures? For instance, if we really want to affirm diversity how shall we incorporate a culture that practices hatred toward homosexuals. Even puts them to death? Consider the Iranian couple who were accused of having premarital sex. They were sentenced to death, buried up to their necks, then stoned to death by enthusiastic participants. Shall we affirm that sort of diversity? Or how about cultures that condone selling one's own daughter into prostitution, throwing battery acid in the face of girls who merely want to go to school, hiring amateurs to carve out the clitoris of little girls with razor blades, forbidding female's inclusion in wills, inflicting women with second rate legal standing, ad naseum? Should these differences be accepted, respected, and used as a basis for learning and teaching?

Professor Nieto's prescription makes no sense in the real world. And educators who try to embrace her silly prescription are not embracing tolerance. They are either revealing ignorance or participating in a charade.

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