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03/26/92

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King sidebar: Reconsider assumptions taught in school

STANFORD -- Educator Joyce King asks people to reconsider assumptions offered by prominent scholars and standard classroom texts. Among them:

1. The United States is a nation of immigrants.

For example, said King, the new California textbooks define Native Americans as the "first immigrants." Defined that broadly, noted King, all peoples are immigrants. Yet Europeans do not consider themselves "immigrants" to Europe, though they migrated there centuries after humanity's apparent origins in Africa.

Regardless of the dictionary definition, King said, the connotations of "immigrant" also fail to do justice to many other Americans - people who arrived under coercion, such as the African Americans, and the Mexican peoples who already lived in large regions of the West when the U.S. government acquired them.

"There is a politics to calling people something they are not, to giving them a history that is not theirs," King said. "It says that we can all make it to the top, we can all climb that ladder. It says that we all came seeking a better life, that we are all on an equal footing. It says that you, too, can share that dream.

"But for some of us, the trick is to survive that dream. We are not crying 'Let us in' - we're crying for justice."

2. What worked for other immigrants must now be made to work for African Americans.

King read aloud from newspaper accounts of recent racial problems that have arisen when Asian minorities, such as the Koreans, have moved into black neighborhoods and opened businesses with financial backing unavailable to the residents. Their limited financial success is based on having an economic underclass beneath them - hence, the strife and violence within these communities.

"People aren't always just 'exploited' or 'exploiter' - sometimes they're both," King said.

This situation, she said, illustrates that the experiences of each social, racial or ethnic problem has to be considered anew, and not limited by overarching generalizations.

3. African Americans are just like any other multicultural or ethnic group.

King said this thinking was part of the "let's get on with it" mind-set of some conceptions of multiculturalism.

"We need to avoid wiping out differences," she said. "You want to say the Holocaust was 'just another ethnic experience'? It has a particular quality that needs to be understood. People experience shame when these issues are taught in a way that keeps them from understanding themselves.

"We need to be comfortable talking about differences and cultural images. People are already grouped together and stereotyped by our society. It doesn't help us understand each other to ignore it."

4. The United States is the most successful multicultural society of all time.

"What does 'successful' mean?" King asked when responding to this sentence in the California curriculum framework.

King cited prison rates in the United States, reported in recent newspapers as the highest in the world. For every 100,000 people, 455 were incarcerated in 1990; among African Americans males, the figure was 3,370 per 100,000. She compared it with the figure of 681 per 100,000 black males incarcerated in South Africa.

5. What worked for the United States must now be made to work for poorer nations.

Does it really work for the United States? King asks.

Citing D. Orr's Ecological Literacy, she noted that, from 1978 to 1982, the United States lost an average 900,000 jobs per year because of plant closing, contraction, and relocation (in manufacturing concerns employing more than 100 workers). Every 56 minutes, an American child dies of poverty, totalling 10,000 children a year.

And even if it does work for many, King asks, what would be the consequence of a world full of U.S.-style consumers?

On a typical day, the world loses 40-100 species; 116 square miles of rain forest, averaging an acre per second; and 72 square miles to encroaching deserts as a result of human mismanagement or overpopulation. Meanwhile, we add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.

"We can't replicate ourselves. The planet couldn't stand it," King said.

Education for global justice "is not about putting pretty pictures in textbooks and producing another wasteful, exploitative, dominating generation of Americans. Please! We're sending our garbage to the world.

"We have to convey to young people that it is possible to save the world - otherwise, we're lost."

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