Colonialism in the Classroom

Anil Singh

  photo by Anju Lukose-Scott

Growing up, I was always confused about my identity. Was I Indian? Guyanese? American? Hindu? Muslim? I often found it easier to suppress my identity entirely and pretend like it didn’t matter. Eventually, I learned to appreciate my unique cultural identity. But this task wasn’t made any easier by the public school system.

In fourth grade, we learned about immigration. We looked at images from Ellis Island and learned about immigration. We annotated documents detailing the medical inspections and analyzed photographs of the huddled masses yearning to be free. But it stopped there. It felt like we were taught that immigration ended by the mid-1900s. But where did that leave me? Or most of my classmates, for that matter? Were we not equal parts of the American story? Were we just outcasts?

In a place as diverse as New York, it’s a travesty that more of us aren’t taught about our own cultures and the cultures of our classmates and neighbors. The current history curriculum throughout elementary and middle school almost solely focuses on Eurocentric history, and only mentions nonwhite people in relation to Europeans.  As the city’s minority student population only grows, this chasm between the curriculum and the students will only widen. By educating students using a diverse cultural curriculum, the Department of Education can help students establish a sense of identity and relate to their peers better as well.

One way this can be achieved is through changing not what is taught, but when it is taught. Acknowledging holidays such as Indigenous People’s Day or Diwali not only gives families time to observe their traditions, but also provides the opportunity to learn more about different cultures and their practices. Recent strides have been made in this direction by giving Eid and Lunar New Year off, but more public holidays can be recognized and taught about in the days leading up to them.

In addition to acknowledging more holidays, the Department of Education has made some steps towards a more inclusive curriculum. Last year, the city’s Panel for Education policy voted unanimously to establish “culturally responsive” education. However, in practice, it’s unclear what this means. In fact, Chancellor Carranza cited using Hamilton to teach US history as an example of this policy. While this may perhaps prove useful for some students, watching snippets of a Broadway play simply won’t cut it in terms of representing all communities in the education curriculum. The DOE’s website is also rather vague on what exactly they believe “culturally responsive-sustaining education,” as they term it, entails.

So, what should a culturally relevant curriculum look like? For starters, different cultures can be incorporated into lessons. The most obvious subject is probably social studies. But inclusion should not be limited to the history class. Civilizations around the world, predecessors to the ones our ancestors came from, have made huge advancements in science, literature, math, art, music, and so many other disciplines. However, history is written by the victors, so after centuries of European imperialism, it’s no surprise that school curricula reflect this. Nevertheless, it’s a disservice to knowledge to teach solely from a Western perspective. Can one truly be said, for example, to be receiving a humanities education, if they only learn one perspective of the human story and experience?

However, it’s not enough to simply teach about different cultures in school. Diversity is not the same as inclusion. Bringing in a dish from your country of origin or doing a show-and-tell is not the same as learning about the struggles of a people. It’s also not enough to simply learn about the “goods” of a culture – the kings, the high culture, the wars and battles. Cultures are made up of ordinary people, marginalized figures. Peoples struggle against oppression, and resist – and no culture is wholly “good” or “bad.” By teaching the whole aspect of different cultures, and not just the food or the rulers, students would gain a better understanding of the entire culture and the people of it. By better understanding the common struggles that people have faced throughout history and how they overcame them, education can be useful in understanding one’s own identity, but also become a tool for building solidarity across racial, ethnic, and religious lines, potentially reducing some of the oppressive mindsets that plague our society today.

Moreover, a more representative curriculum also invites the opportunity for more democracy and community engagement. After all, who better to teach about a culture than immigrant parents themselves? This is beneficial to students and parents, as both can be enriched by the exchange of ideas. It gives parents a sense of influence over their children’s education, and offers a firsthand perspective that a textbook simply cannot. It also allows for flexibility. Certain zone schools with high populations of one group can spend more time on that particular culture, so this type of education will have the most impact on its recipients.

Some might argue that culturally relevant education takes away from core subjects, and that students should be learning more about reading, math, and science. However, culturally responsive education is associated with higher educational outcomes, such as better understanding of concepts and improved problem-solving skills. However, let’s set aside this for a second and take a step back at this argument. Are students merely cogs in a machine, and are we only focused on “outcomes?” Students are human beings, and while education is necessary to teach students life skills and prepare them for the real world (although it’s questionable how much standardized test scores actually reflect life readiness), it also serves the purpose of creating whole people with strong senses of identity and community.

Ultimately, students deserve to see themselves in school curricula. I learned about my own roots through bits here and there that I heard from family, or from my own limited research. It would’ve been so helpful to learn about Indian indentureship in school and then be able to use that to connect the dots between the fragmented pieces of information I already had. Or to learn Hindi and regain a connection with my ancestors that was lost over recent generations. For myself and many other students in this city and this country, the public education system needs to go further than it already has in incorporating and truly embracing the diversity of its students.


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