It’s the last Slow Boring post of the year! I don’t think this site has been in existence long enough to warrant a lot of self-reflection and rumination. But I’m very happy that a lot of you have signed up and that this is going to be a sustainable business — many thanks to everyone who has subscribed or who has gifted a subscription. And of course, if for some reason you’re sitting around the week after Christmas wanting to buy more gifts for people, then I wouldn’t stand in your way!
Today I wanted to zig a little from my brand as a woke-skeptic to defend an idea that I’ve seen take a lot of criticism lately but that I think is well-grounded in theory and evidence — the idea that we should change the content of school curricula to incorporate more voices and characters that reflect the students being educated.
A lot of different stuff happens in the name of social justice
The University of Michigan has put out an inclusive language guide that includes some clearly reasonable ideas (don’t call people “honey”) and some utterly absurd ones (don’t say “picnic” based on a fake etymology). Beyond the specific content of the list is, I think, the larger absurdity that many universities that are simultaneously strapped for cash, bankrupting their students, and underpaying their faculty are investing large sums of money in diversity, equity, and inclusion teams ($10.6 million to 82 diversity officers, of whom 76 are on the prestige Ann Arbor campus) to come up with this sort of thing.
There are also left-wing K-12 teachers who are sharing ideas on social media about how to replace some of the traditional “dead white man”-type books on the curriculum with newer texts featuring a more diverse set of authors and subjects and more contemporary values in terms of content. A lot of the people doing this use jargon about how you need to “decolonize” things and otherwise adopt language that is off-putting to a lot of the same people who find the above list to be absurd.
Which is to say that both of these ideas — micromanaging language use on an elite college campus and pushing to diversify the content of K-12 curricula in majority-minority schools — are manifestations of The Great Awokening, and the way the game is played, you are supposed to be pro-woke or anti-woke and decide about specifics on that basis.
I am often anti-woke.
But I have to say that the handful of people I know who are educators all believe firmly that “culturally relevant pedagogy” works and that their students are more likely to read and learn when they are given authors and characters who look and sound like them. The people I know who tell me this use restrained, normal language like “Hispanic kids don’t see a lot of representation of themselves in pop culture so they think it’s really compelling when we give them books that do that.” They are also addressing a very practical problem, which is that it’s really bad for your outcomes in life if you don’t learn to read and write well, but a lot of kids don’t.
Anecdotes, of course, are not data. And the whole evidence base on this topic is a little bit disappointingly thin. But what’s out there seems to me to clearly support the woke position: on the whole, incorporating culturally relevant pedagogy and ethnic studies material into the curriculum helps kids learn.
This is a terrible thing to introspect about
My old friend Sara Mead always made the point to me that it’s dangerous to discuss K-12 policy with normies because everyone went to school and has an opinion about it, even if they haven’t done any research or given it serious thought.
And that seems to really be the case here, where I’ve seen a tremendous number of professional writers stand up for the enduring value of teaching the classics primarily by talking about the value to them of reading the classics.
Less purely retrospectively, Kay Hymowitz pointed out to me that Frederick Douglass didn’t need a culturally relevant curriculum to become an intellectual giant.
I’m inclined to say that the life story of Frederick Douglass shows us that extraordinary people can overcome extraordinary hardships, but this has limited relevance for helping us to understand how to best help basically normal people overcome normal hardships.
In introspection mode, I could say that being given a little Dostoevsky to read as a teenager was transformative for me. I took a high school class on Russian literature, then when I was 17 I lived for two months over the summer with a family in Nizhny Novgorod. I took two more Russian literature classes in college, and by far my favorite recent novel is Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which is on the theme of being really into classic Russian novels. Russia, Russia, Russia. I’m not a very arty or literary person, but I can give you takes on Tolstoy’s lesser novels or on Andrei Bely’s modernist masterpiece Petersburg and if you bring up The Master and Margarita, I’m going to want to tell you about Bulgakov’s more obscure science fiction novella Heart of a Dog.
By contrast, Shakespeare never did it for me and I found the high school class where we had to read The Odyssey incredibly annoying.
So out with the bard, in with Notes From Underground? You can’t make policy like that. But there’s some decent research to suggest that culturally relevant curriculum design does help get students more engaged.
Relatable material is good
For a solid, non-woke theoretical introduction to the concept I would recommend David Brooks who has long maintained that one reason boys on average do worse than girls in school is that the people who design curricula don’t pay enough attention to what boys are interested in:
It shouldn't be any surprise that according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of young men who read has plummeted over the past 14 years. Reading rates are falling three times as fast among young men as among young women. Nor should it be a surprise that men are drifting away from occupations that involve reading and school. Men now make up a smaller share of teachers than at any time in the past 40 years.
Dr. Leonard Sax, whose book "Why Gender Matters" is a lucid guide to male and female brain differences, emphasizes that men and women can excel at any subject. They just have to be taught in different ways. Sax is a big believer in single-sex schools, which he says allow kids to open up and break free from gender stereotypes. But for most kids it would be a start if they were assigned books they might actually care about. For boys, that probably means more Hemingway, Tolstoy, Homer and Twain.
This is a conservative writer talking about boys, but it’s the exact same representational logic you’ll hear on the left. If the teaching workforce is dominated by women who assign a lot of books that reflect female interests, then it will be disproportionately boys who feel bored and check out. Well, if it’s all white people assigning books about white people, what do you expect is going to happen?
That’s theory. What do we really know? Unfortunately, there has not been a ton of research focus on this topic. But here are some findings:
Tucson ran a politically controversial Mexican-American Studies program that the state legislature eventually killed, but logistic regression analysis suggests that taking the MAS course was associated with greater likelihood to pass Arizona’s standardized testing regime and greater odds of graduating high school.
A fuzzy regression discontinuity study of an ethnic studies course for ninth graders suggests that enrolling in the course “increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage point … and credits earned by 23 [i.e., about 4 additional courses passed in the ninth grade].”
Back in 2012, we got an honest-to-god randomized control trial of culturally relevant training for second-grade math teachers focused on Alaska Natives, and the modules “significantly improved students’ mathematics performance, with relatively robust effect sizes (0.82 and 0.39 standard deviations, respectively, both statistically significant at the .001 level).”
I particularly like this last study because it would be very easy to make it sound absurd. Even more so than language arts, on some level math is math, and you don’t need Yup’ik cultural context to know that
7 x 9 = 63.
And yet, it turns out that teaching children is a non-trivial task that is related to, but not identical to, understanding the content itself. You can have ways of doing it that are more or less effective. And sensitivity to cultural content seems to make a difference. At the collegiate level, Nicholas Bowman’s meta-analysis of studies finds that “students who take at least one diversity course have greater gains in their general interest in ideas and effortful thinking than those who take no courses” but that beyond one there are no further effects.
It’s important to actually research things
They probably don’t care what I think, but my advice to proponents of decolonizing language arts curricula would be to remember that in a democracy, they need to communicate these ideas to an electorate that is mostly white, mostly over 50, and mostly did not graduate from college.
I think a phrase like “we need to give kids material that’s interesting to them, which means stuff they identify with” is probably more compelling than a highly politicized vow to combat white supremacy.
But people on both sides of this argument have an obligation to take curriculum development seriously and actually study which ideas work and which don’t. There has been an incredible proliferation of diversity training programs in a variety of contexts, most of which don’t achieve anything useful and some of which actually backfire. Yet on the flip side, here we have evidence that culturally relevant curricula do achieve something useful. The excesses of the Great Awokening have produced a kind of moral panic where any sign of “woke” language or prioritization of social justice concerns in a somewhat unfamiliar context is immediately dismissed. The Tucson MAS course was seemingly the victim of a right-wing cancel culture that shut down an effective pedagogical tool for political reasons.
Teaching children is hard, and not every idea that flies under the banner of culturally relevant pedagogy will be effective. Its proponents should be rigorous and make sure their ideas continue to be tested — expand the successful math curriculum for Alaska Natives to other marginalized groups and run the RCT again to check and see if you’re doing it right. But skeptics need to engage with evidence; “everyone should be as smart and self-motivating as Frederick Douglass” is not a real answer.
If you’re of a centrist or center-right perspective, it might be interesting to you to learn that the widely praised KIPP charter school network believes in culturally relevant pedagogy, and I think there’s a good chance they know what they’re talking about.
The common culture
Some people are going to not care about any of this and say that we just need to have a common culture founded on the great books and that’s that.
I don’t think I can refute that idea, but I do think it’s important to complicate it slightly by noting that we are further from this ideal than most people realize. There are no books at all that are near-universally assigned in the United States, and it’s been that way for a long time — the United States is a country that believes very deeply in decentralized administration of schools. Recall that the Common Core, which was very much not a national curriculum, prompted a huge freakout mostly from the right just because it vaguely hinted at possibly someday looking something like a national curriculum.
So that’s a fine debate to have; maybe we should have a national curriculum, and maybe that curriculum should feature a set roster of canonical works.
But that’s a genuinely separate debate that has a totally different set of institutional adversaries and considerations. It is probably true that strong proponents of culturally relevant pedagogy would be suspicious of a national curriculum push that would make it harder for schools in, say, the South Bronx to try to achieve cultural relevance to their students. By the same token, the conservatives who were mad about the Common Core would dislike both the centralization on principle and also the reality that a national curriculum would inevitably reflect a political sensibility that’s several clicks to the left of the typical small town or rural community.
Realistically, I think it’s not going to happen.
And speaking as someone who spent the Obama years being annoyed by conservative hostility to any steps toward curricular standardization, the cultural relevance literature has made me appreciate the merits of the traditional conservative preference for decentralized institutions. It obviously wouldn’t make sense for every second grade teacher in America to get trained in a pedagogical method optimized for Alaska Natives. But that’s no reason we shouldn’t do it for the people who do have large numbers of Alaska Natives in their classroom. This is a huge, diverse country with tens of thousands of public schools all serving different communities, and it makes sense for them to have a differentiated approach.
I love this. People who are reflexively "anti-woke" are often engaging in the narrowing epistemology that they claim they hate.
We shouldn't try to be "woke" or "anti-woke" as much as we should strive being pro-evidence.
My own primary and secondary school experience was that I wasn't really ready for the classics in primary and secondary school -- and I don't know if I was ready for them in college, because I didn't take any literature courses in college because I frankly hated literature by then. This wasn't because I was anti-reading -- I read a ton of modern novels. But I wasn't emotionally mature enough nor did I have a broad enough life experience to be spoken to by Dickens, Hemingway, or Dostoevsky, and I just found those books boring. (And I'm white, male, straight, and privileged as hell).
I dunno how common this is. But I always felt like we should concentrate on inculcating a love of reading in our children first, and let great literature come gradually. If that means assigning JK Rowling or whatever, then let the kids get literate, let them enjoy their books, and then let them read classics in college or on their own as adults.