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Afrocentric Learning: Fears, Logic, and Assumptions

December 19, 2006

About a week ago, the Chicago Tribune published a story on Afrocentric learning (registration required). The article was written by Deborah Horan and titled “‘There’s a can-do attitude here’: Afrocentric learning wins teachers’ praise, but also stirs critics.”

Here are some excerpts from Horan’s story:

– “In the ‘African wing’ of this Evanston school, four dozen tiny black faces recite the Afrocentric Creed. With the uneven voices of small children, they sing the black national anthem, ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ . . . Similar morning rituals have been under way [at] . . . Woodlawn Community School on Chicago’s South Side, where African-centered learning has catered since the mid-1990s to a student body that is more than 95 percent black. But . . . the Oakton program is taking place in a suburban venue that is nearly half white, Asian and Latino, and in a community that prides itself on its history of racial integration.”
– “Teachers and parents of participants say the children are eager to learn when the material has an African theme. ‘I already see a difference in attention span,’ said Claudia Braithwaite, the pilot program’s 1st-grade teacher.”
– “Controversy has swirled around the project, pitting parents who emphasize the positives of African-centered learning against those wary of racial separation more than four decades after the Evanston Board of Education voted to voluntarily desegregate its schools in 1964. Though the pilot program was open to all students . . . only parents of African-American students opted in.”
– “Opponents of the program questioned whether a school-within-a-school would create racial divisions that would continue outside the classroom. Others suggested that other ethnic groups might demand their own curriculum. Still others said a parent’s input is the key ingredient to a child’s success.”
– “The program involves 47 students in three classrooms–kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades. About 40 of Oakton’s 105 black pupils in those grades opted to enroll, and the rest came from other Evanston schools.”
– “Cheryl Ajirotutu–an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who is co-author of the book African-Centered Schooling in Theory and Practice–said her research suggests that black children who learn in African-centered settings show improved test scores. At Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Milwaukee . . . truancy and school suspensions dropped after the African-centered program was introduced in 1991, [Ajirotutu] said. [She] also found that students tested better in areas such as critical thinking and . . . ‘self-efficacy’–what students felt they were capable of doing. . . . However, a Milwaukee middle school she studied did not show the same gains.”
– “Because Evanston’s program is in a wing of a school separate from the general education program, it would also be important for educators to gauge how other students perceived the African-centered program, Ajirotutu said.”
– “The program’s teachers say they hope to impart a strong sense of African ancestry as well as examples of African and African-American success stories. To that aim, they’ve added maps of Africa and the phrase ‘black is beautiful’ to classrooms filled with the pictures and block letters one would find in any elementary school. The Swahili concepts of Nguzo Saba–unity, creativity, faith, to name a few–share space with the seven Egyptian virtues of Ma’at, including this month’s virtue: order. Many of the books are about African or African-American children. The pupils learn about black artists, scientists and authors. For Kwanzaa, a famous African-American poet will visit the classrooms. The red, green and black Pan-African flag hangs near an American flag. And while the kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they also sing the black national anthem.”

Please do go to the Tribune‘s page and check out the story.

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The stereotypical response to programs such as this, from opponents, is generally disdain. Proponents seem to approve in an unqualified fashion. What’s behind these responses? Some of the negativity qualifies as “knee-jerk,” and other responses involve hidden assumptions. Of what, precisely, are the critics of Afrocentric learning afraid? The loss of:

– Common culture. Opponents fear that children raised in an Afrocentric environment will have nothing in common with their peers when their education is complete. One might categorize this, in technical terms, as a socialization concern: critics fear we may be raising a generation and a group with anti-social tendencies.
– Patriotism. Naysayers fear that students brought up in an Afrocentric program are being raised to hate the United States.
– Essential skills. The opposition is afraid that students whose primary school experience centered on Afrocentric knowledge will lack essential skills. The fear is that traditional, proven knowledge – such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic – is neglected.
– Essential facts/knowledge. Here the critics might cite E.D. Hirsch‘s Cultural Literacy studies, arguing that Afrocentric curriculums ignore the basic facts necessary for being an informed citizen and voter.
– Peace. Naysayers equate Afrocentric programs with the violent aspects of the Black Power Movement, such as the Black Panther Party. Opponents fear we are raising another generation of Stokely Carmichaels, Fred Hamptons, and Huey Newtons.
– Racism. Critics fear that students brought up in an Afrocentric program are being raised to hate “whites,” or “the other.”

Are all of these fears justified? No. Most of the steps involved in these thought processes are illogical, involving several questionable jumps in thinking. With regard to patriotism, for instance, does an appreciation for your ethnic, racial, or cultural group necessitate, one for one, with a loss of love for one’s country? No. Does the love of one culture necessitate dislike for other cultures? No. Many cultural groups currently coexist peacefully in the United States, and many of them – especially those with high percentages of immigrants – love this country as much or more than “native” citizens. If one is taught to appreciate the opportunities he or she has been given, they may in fact love their country more. Could it be the case that extensive exposure to Afrocentric knowledge might excite curiosity when encountering something new? Yes.

What of the loss of essential skills? That could perhaps occur, if the implementation of an Afrocentric curriculum does not take care to acknowledge the liberal arts aspects of the humanities (grammar, rhetoric, and logic). There is no proof, however, that the liberal arts are being neglected in Afrocentric curriculums. Until a researcher demonstrates the de-emphasis of the liberal arts, then critics shouldn’t assume the worst.

What of the loss of essential, factual knowledge? Perhaps, but only if one could show that students of Afrocentric curriculums are being exposed less to citizenship, science, and history courses. There seems to be an assumption, “out there,” that all traditional facts about U.S. history and culture are ignored in schools touting Afrocentric curriculums. If Afrocentric classes replace all other core courses, then perhaps arguments against that curriculum are valid. If Afrocentric courses are additive, or only take the place of middle and high school courses like home economics, physical education, or a year of literature, then naysayers’ arguments are specious. In terms of elementary school level, it depends on how much of those core knowledge-type facts we actually absorb at that level. For me, a lot of what I remember from that time qualify as mythical values knowledge (i.e. Washington and the cherry tree and never telling a lie).

In sum, the article caused me to reflect on the general illogic of arguments against Afrocentric curricula. I’m neither a proponent nor an opponent, and therefore can’t understand the knee-jerk responses of the general public. One can and should have questions, but I can’t comprehend the reactionary outrage and general disdain for all Afrocentric curricula. – TL

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7 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    In response to “but I can't comprehend the reactionary outrage and general disdain for all Afrocentric curricula.” I believe there are a few things at play.

    1. There's just a general disdain for any non-European, non-male, non-hetero curriculum. Unless all the great dead white (straight) men receive primacy, and all others and their cultures are treated as bit players or secondary, then there always seems to be a Culture War at play. I propose that the Culture Wars are largely just a sham meant to cover up old-fashioned prejudice (racial and otherwise).

    2. Africans and blacks in general are always treated as inferior – like some holdover from the slavery mentality. A colonial mindset still seems to exist that people haven't made their way beyond. As though curriculum and education are the intellectual property of only whites, so no other type of curriculum or point of view can be allowed.

    3. I think there is a hang-up about Afrocentric culture in general. If an Afrocentric curriculum exists and is successful, I think there's always a little gnawing in the back of whitey's mind, a bit of logic (rational or not) that goes something like this: Africans were taken as slaves and mistreated because they were inferior and uncivilized. If it now turns out an Afrocentric curriculum is academically sound or equal to the current system, then slavery and any inferior treatment looks even worse than it already is. And maybe reparations are in order. And what if blacks do become educated in an Afrocentric system, and take our jobs, and run the government. Will they then treat us the way we treated them…

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  2. I must admit that I haven't given much thought to your point (under #1) about those who may be using the Culture Wars as a mask to cover up older prejudices. I suppose that could be true, but are the prejudices being covered up only to do with race? I think a great deal of Culture Wars prejudices deal with religion, specifically Protestantism, more than race. Class is always lurking around the Culture Wars as well. I'm sure race is there, but I'm not sure where it stands on the hierarchical scale.

    Aside: I do want to clarify that it could be case with Evanston's Oakton Elementary, the focus the Tribune article, that the loyal opposition are simply upset with the location of the students studying the Afrocentric curriculum: it's being done in a separate wing of the school. Would those opposed still be unhappy if the Afrocentric classes were spread throughout the curriculum? I suspect they would be. Hashing out the particular's of Evanston's Oakton school wasn't the point of my reflection, however. I simply used the article as springboard for discussing general opposition to Afrocentric curricula. – TL

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  3. Anonymous permalink

    Tim – that's why I added “(racial and otherwise).” “Culture Wars” seem to mask prejudices based on race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and science – did I miss anything?.

    It's as though any time a challenge is made to the the notion of a white, straight, Christian, male dominated culture, or any time a group or individual not of that “type” is added into the fold of our culture, whether it be to add them into our general history or to adopt their ideas for a broader contemporary usage (like school curriculum), then the sides are drawn and catchphrases like “Culture War” and “PC” are dragged out and bandied about like Revolutionary War bayonets.

    Just call it what it is – prejudice.

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  4. It's certainly in the nature of terms 'conservative' and 'traditional' – no matter one's background – to not want to change what isn't egregiously broken. To enlarge on your point, if the tables were turned and, for instance, gay-aetheist-chinese-upper-class-male administrators were in charge of our schools, then they'd be resistant to addressing the curricular concerns of white-straight-female-middle-class parents. People just don't like change.

    But I think one of your original points, in your first post, about the history of slavery in the U.S. is right on. It has added an edge to the Afrocentric debate. Our historical context is making things worse than needs be. How does one lower the shrill factor? I guess there's no easy answer – only patience, dialogue, shared governance of the school, and respect will do. – TL

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  5. Anonymous permalink

    And if/when gay-aetheist-chinese-upper-class-male administrators are ever put in charge of our schools, then we'll know for certain if you're right and that they'd carry those same prejudices, but against the curricular concerns of white-straight-female-middle-class parents. When do you think that will be? (Just a rhetorical question)

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  6. Backing up a bit: Are 'prejudice' and 'conservatism,' with regard to the curricular momentum of a school, the same thing? Pre-judging strikes me as different than the unwillingness to change. The state of not being unwilling is more often than not just a derivative of laziness: it's not the same as actively – or subconsciously – pre-judging a matter wrongly. I wonder what percentage of opposition to Afrocentric curricula by parents and school administrators is simply a result of intellectual laziness? I guess one of the goals of my post was to begin to show the illogic of opposition, which can help narrow that pool to the obviously prejudiced. – TL

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  7. Anonymous permalink

    Tim – I think prejudice transcends ideology. Just as there may be proponents of conservatism prejudiced against a progressive or different curriculum, I'm sure on the other side there are proponents of liberalism prejudiced against the status quo simply because it is the status quo and not for any sound academic arguments.

    I agree the prejudging and an unwillingness to change are two different things. But my question back to you is, I wonder how much of that laziness is fueled by prejudice against the change – and not even so much “change” in general, but specifically “change” to what is proposed.

    In regards to narrowing the pool to the obviously prejudiced. Good Luck! People are crafty and amazingly savvy when it comes to masking prejudice. There's always another reason why curriculum can't be changed. Unless you can find those willing to say, “we won't adopt Afrocentric curriculum becasue we don't like blacks” you may not find the obviously prejudiced.

    But I think actions speak louder than words. And I'm not arguing that all schools should run out and adopt a new curriculum in a show of non-prejudice. I think it's worth pointing out how over the course of the past few decades (back to original point) 1. There's just a general disdain for any non-European, non-male, non-hetero curriculum. Unless all the great dead white (straight) men receive primacy, and all others and their cultures are treated as bit players or secondary, then there always seems to be a Culture War at play. I propose that the Culture Wars are largely just a sham meant to cover up old-fashioned prejudice (racial and otherwise).

    And one last follow up – I didn't want to forget to point out how closely the status quo is linked to patriotism and “God Bless America.” As if changing the way we educate children or think about education is Un-American and likely to cause us to lose God's blessings and a successful US military consisting of those no longer in that school system.

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