‘Culturally relevant’ education is a contradiction 

“Culturally relevant” education would be the “it” in question. I quake in my boots every time I hear the term.

I saw it most recently in a Baltimore daily. The story was about a Baltimore County educational program that seemed not only innocuous, but also downright praiseworthy.

It’s called AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination. Its purpose is to raise the achievement level among black boys, who, as a group, are on the bottom rung of the achievement ladder.

So, yes, the goal of raising the achievement level among black boys in Baltimore County — and the entire nation — is noble. And the newspaper story was going along that line just fine when the reporter wrote about a “‘culturally relevant’ teaching strand” that “would help acknowledge the various cultures of students.” One of the adults involved with the AVID program elaborated, and by doing so confirmed my worst fears:

“They [black boys] are not seeing themselves in the curriculum, and they do not see where it is relevant outside of school and therefore do not see it as an investment in their future.”

As a former black boy myself — one who managed to learn how to read, write and master enough math to get me through algebra and calculus — I feel compelled to slash through this web of nonsense.

When I was a lad I did not have to “see” myself in the curriculum. The only picture I needed to see was my mother’s foot being placed firmly up my derriere if I didn’t bring home good grades from school. You’d be amazed at how “relevant” that made everything my teachers taught me.

In other words, the geography I learned in eighth grade, the history and the science: all were relevant outside of school because my mother said they were. And her vote was the only one that counted.

Start talking about “culturally relevant teaching strands,” and you may end up teaching students absolute nonsense. Remember the furor over whether some school systems should implement “Afrocentric” curriculums? I actually had someone try to convince me that such a thing as “Afrocentric math” existed.

“No,” I insisted. “I assure you there is no ‘Afrocentric’ math. Nor is there a ‘Eurocentric’ math or an ‘Asian-centric’ math. Math is simply math.”

I’d had almost a similar discussion many years earlier, as a high school senior in Baltimore. The year was 1969. A group of black students at my school had adopted the attitude and tone of those on the black power/black militant wing of the African-American population. They were angry; they were swaggering; they were ... stupid.

In my junior year, I had passed a rather difficult probability and statistics course with a 96 average. One of my buddies from the wrestling team, Al Logan, struggled with the course but eventually passed. And even though he had his problems, he realized the importance of math.

As seniors, we met with the group of militants — all juniors — who decided that math wasn’t “relevant.” (This was the time when that particularly nasty “r” word first started cropping up.)

Logan, probably remembering that probability and statistics course and how it had helped him, simply put his head in his hands, slowly shook his head and then told the group: “All math is relevant.”

And black students — indeed, all American students — need to learn it, whether they see if it’s “relevant outside of school” or not.

That’s why students at the prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic Institute — a predominantly black school, by the way, with a plethora of talented black male students — are required to take at least one year of calculus before they graduate.

Some of them may grouse about it while they’re taking it, but I’ve interviewed alumni of the school who swore it came in darned handy in college.

Either England’s Sir Isaac Newton or Germany’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz invented calculus, depending on which source you believe. It would be hard for black students to “see themselves” in a curriculum that stressed calculus. But BPI’s black students see only that they have to pass the course.

Ditto for the young men in the AVID program, for whom I have a word of advice: It’s not important to “see yourself” in the curriculum; it is important that you master it.

Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to Sudan.

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Gregory Kane

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Examiner columnist Gregory Kane is an award-winning journalist who lives in Baltimore.

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