By Nicole Rivera, Ed.D.
Most children will spend at least twelve years of their lives involved in formal education. In comparison to the average lifespan, this is a relatively short amount of time. And yet, we are very interested in what does or does not happen during that time. Why? Because today’s society is hardwired to label individuals based on their ability to master government-mandated and socially influenced curriculums.
Undeniably, one of the most important processes for supporting development is the transmission of any society’s culture; schools themselves are important vehicles for teaching young people the skills and knowledge that are believed to be essential for adult life. From this, however, we realize that the content taught in schools is dynamic and ever-changing, as based upon pressure to conform to mainstream groups’ definition of “relevant cultural knowledge.” But if our schools are consistently testing new, subjective material, how reliable are our standards for judging youth?
Jerome Bruner (1996) explains how the institution of education serves to teach youth culture. Above all, he notes that educational experiences shape an individual’s sense of self, and that—in doing so—they inevitably produce social and economic consequences. This idea shows us how rich the process of education is, as well as how important. Simultaneously, it provides an important framework for examining some of the questions and limitations of schools as cultural institutions.
As Bruner says, “A system of education must help those growing up in a culture find an identity within that culture” (p. 42). And yet, we have incredible diversity in school experiences; some students excel while others fail. Those who succeed go on to find a place in society, while those who fail are often ostracized and spend the remainder of their lives on the periphery looking in. When these patterns persist over time, individuals and communities may accept the identity of failure and thus perpetuate the cycle.
National policies seek to close educational gaps through intervention and increased accountability—which are certainly very important, but perhaps myopic. What we really need, as a country, is to step back and examine the big picture: how the institution of education demonstrates what we value as a society, and not necessarily the value of children who succeed or fail to meet our expectations.
We know that members of the dominant culture are more likely to achieve, and that children who present differences in their learning because of disability, linguistic or culture diversity are often marginalized by the educational system. In such cases, the system of education which Bruner says should support a sense of identity within the group instead teaches children that they are “broken.”
If we’re a country that values diversity as much as we claim, it is essential that we develop culturally-centered practices that recognize the diversity within our school populations.
Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.