Where do I belong? Countering the cultural hegemony

When Reyna Grande spoke at the Voice Your Language conference at San Diego State University on February 20th, 2017, she brought attention to an issue facing educators and families of bilingual students: the literary hegemony.

Grande’s family, originally from Iguala, Mexico, succeeded in their third attempt to cross the border with the United States. In and out of school, Grande read. She read books like Nancy Drew, which taught the importance of hard work, honesty, intelligence, and American cultural values. However, it was difficult for Grande to see herself in the books she read.

Grande said, “These books gave me access to an America I didn’t [otherwise] have access to; middle class America.” They implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) suggest a white, wealthy image of what a person should strive to be. The proliferation of such monochrome role models throughout literature is sometimes referred to as a cultural hegemony, and relying on such literature to teach students promotes a cultural literacy (Cadeiro-Kaplan, 2004). Cultural literacy has two large shortcomings. First, valuing only dead white authors implies their values are more important than those of other cultures. Second, the history necessary to analyzing and critiquing the values in those works is subject to the same biases that limit the range of The Classics in the first place.

Policymakers are not blind to the challenges posed by the cultural hegemony. The California English Language Arts/English Language Development (ELA/ELD) Framework includes much language emphasizing students’ native language as a resource; unfortunately, the Framework provides scant guidance on how to accomplish this admirable goal (For example, it does suggest using cognates). The California Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy (CCCSS) echo the ELA/ELD Framework’s call for pedagogical flexibility in the classroom. After enumerating the goals for students in the classroom, the CCCSS adds that teachers are “free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge that professional judgment and experience deem to be most helpful for meeting the Standards” (3). Here, the CCCSS gives teachers the latitude to tailor classroom content to fit students, an important step. A critical next step the CCCSS does not take is providing guidance on how to ensure that content does not merely build cultural literacy .

The California Common Core Literacy Standards are at once wide-ranging and specific. For example, they stipulate that high school juniors read 30% Literary texts and 70% Informational texts (4). This emphasis on Informational texts is reinforced in the requirement that students “Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning” (4). It, then, is natural for students to read the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights; in fact, these documents appear in Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards, which is a list of Texts Exemplar for carrying out the CCCSS Standards. Below are the portraits of all the authors listed in Informational Texts for 11th Grade.

Figure 1. Authors included in the Common Core State Standards Exemplar Texts, Informational Passages, Grade 11 (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix B, 12).

Of the eleven authors, only Amy Tan, Richard Wright, and Rudolfo Anaya are not white men. And while some may point out that American history is largely populated by white male writers, such an argument is a product of, rather than a justification for a literary hegemony that promotes cultural literacy. And while I’m not sure what texts Reyna Grande read in high school, I would be surprised if the portraits of the authors she did read in school were more diverse than the ones above.

To this point, the CCCSS explicitly state that they “must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” (5). Such a curriculum might include a speech made in 1775 that reveals the extent to which Iroquois ideas influenced the continental congress while drafting the Constitution (Loewen, 2007). And such changes certainly are happening, class by class, as teachers take advantage of state-created flexibility within standards. But for every curriculum that provides culturally relevant material to its students, there are one, two, or three that do not, and lead students to ask, “Where do I belong?”

Sources

Cadiero-Kaplan, K. (2012). The literacy curriculum & bilingual education: a critical examination. New York: P. Lang.

Loewen, J. W. (2007). Lies my teacher told me: everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.