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What does it mean to teach our youth to “fit in” to the mainstream culture?

Greatest Minds 2.24.16 #1This question recently sparked a thought provoking and lively discussion in my graduate course with teachers-in-training.  I was sharing a framework for cultural proficiency, and remarked that being inclusive of diverse cultures does not dismiss the need to teach children what they need to know to succeed in the mainstream culture. But what exactly is the mainstream culture? A couple of students who grew up outside the U.S. responded that this country’s culture is not monolithic, and that has always been one of its’ strengths and unique characteristics. An African-American student challenged whether “fitting in” was oppositional to encouraging children to be their authentic selves. Besides, who gets to decide what constitutes “mainstream?” We all agreed that mainstream culture varies in different contexts, and across the U.S. And that it’s constantly changing. I like to think this is not an either-or proposition.

Greatest Minds 2.24.16 #6I am troubled and challenged by some of our country’s dominant cultural norms – the belief in rugged individualism, the emphasis on consumer spending as a primary measure of societal health, the tolerance of racial inequities – AND YET, I believe that we limit young people’s life choices if they don’t know the rules that enable them to access different trajectories in our society.

I once led a planning process with a coalition of organizations in Boston’s Chinatown. The staff of these organizations got into a debate about teaching new immigrants how to fit in in America. Most agreed that there are aspects of fitting in that are unhealthy for individuals and society. AND YET, don’t the immigrants they serve need to know how our systems and institutions work – then decide for themselves whether or how they want to “fit in?”

These are some of the challenges of engaging diverse communities in an ever-evolving context. While I don’t have the answers, I know this much to be true: We must start by being clear about our own values and maintaining our own moral compasses. From there, we engage. And do our best to support self-determination for those most disempowered in our society, while doing what we can to shift the norms to become more humane, equitable and inclusive.