Jonathan Zimmerman: The other thing Wright gets wrong





[Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is teaching this semester at the university's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a fascinating conversation with a Ghanaian colleague about the ways that people learn. As she noted, most education at universities and secondary schools in Ghana occurs via rote: the teacher says something, then the students write it down. When I suggested that Ghanaians might benefit from more interactive instruction, however, she looked skeptical.

"Ghanaians don't learn that way," she said. "They have a different style."

I thought of this exchange as I read the recent remarks by Sen. Barack Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "Black learning styles are different from European and European-American learning styles," Wright said in recent speaches, citing research on left-brain versus right-brain modes of development. "Different does not mean deficient."

But the racial learning styles that Mr. Wright invoked are the opposite of the ones that my Ghanaian friend attributed to students here. That should make us deeply skeptical of the learning-style concept when it's attached to an entire race.

And make no mistake: it is attached to an entire race. At some American schools of education, future teachers are told that black children learn more easily in groups, not alone; that they prefer to move around the classroom, rather than to sit still; that they are more emotional than cerebral; and that they tend to react impulsively, compared with their more staid white peers.

That might be true, in the United States. But Ghanaians are black, too, and they don't behave anything like the theory predicts. So it's absurd to attribute these qualities to race, or to imagine that black kids can't learn unless they're taught in a "black" way.

You might reply, Africans used to learn that way, too: they were collective, dynamic, and emotional. But then missionaries and colonial governments weaned them off their natural learning style, substituting the cold and rational individualism of the West.

That's what Peace Corps volunteers and other well-meaning Westerners said when they arrived on the continent in the 1960s, proclaiming a new gospel of "progressive" education. Associated most closely with John Dewey, this theory held that learning should be active, not passive; that it should engage children's imagination and emotion, not just their intellects; and, most of all, that it should be relevant to the rest of life. Down with rote memorization for the weekly examination; up with projects, skits, community gardens, and student councils.

Trouble is, most Africans seemed to want the rote system. "How can we learn?" Ethiopian students asked their Peace Corps instructor, after she tried several progressive techniques. "We have nothing to memorize." In three African countries, students went on strike to protest American teaching methods.

To the Americans, such resistance marked how far Africans had strayed from their "natural" learning style. "The Westerner will tend to be cerebral, whereas the African gives great play to feelings," wrote one American teacher. "The Westerner emphasizes the individual person, whereas the African will give an important place to the community." If Africans rejected progressive education, then, Westerners would remind them that collective and emotional learning were deeply rooted in their own culture.

But this strategy made Americans – not Africans – into the ultimate arbiter of what was truly "native" to the natives. And it collapsed the differences between Africans, pretending that there was one right way for all of them to learn.

In the US, the idea of a black learning style does the same thing. Without real evidence, it pretends that all African-American children will or should learn in a similar fashion. Worse, it attributes this preference to the color of their skin.

But many of the West's so-called black learning strategies aren't just good for black kids; they're good for kids, period. As I told my Ghanaian colleague, I do think the students here need instruction that is more engaged, active, and relevant. But that's not because they're black, or African.

It's because they're human. And we diminish their humanity by suggesting otherwise. As the product of a black African father and a white American mother, Barack Obama probably knows that better than anyone else. He could teach his pastor a thing or two.


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