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18.1.3: Sociocultural Contexts of Education

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    Culture and Society

    One of the main goals of multicultural education is to help bridge understanding between dominant culture and different people groups who may have been marginalized by that culture. Therefore, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by the term “dominant culture”. For most sociologists, culture refers to a roadmap for living within a society. Culture includes many components, such as language, customs, traditions, values, food, music, dress, gender roles, importance of religion, and so on. As culture encompasses so many aspects of diversity, it is one of the key components for understanding and discussing the experiences of all types of groups that will come in the following modules.

    Culture imposes order and meaning on our experiences, and it allows us to predict how others will behave in certain situations. For example, if you are in a classroom and a student raises their hand, we know this means he or she has a question. But, culture includes so many things – the way people talk, dress, interact, eat, live, and so on. Within each culture are individuals, who are unique expressions of many cultures and subcultures.

    There are two major responses to culture. One is enculturation, or, the process of acquiring the characteristics of a culture and knowing how to navigate behaviors, customs, etc. This often happens simply through the process of growing up within a given culture, but is certainly something that can continue should the culture around you change. For example, if you have ever studied abroad or visited another county for an extended amount of time, you will likely have encountered another culture where you needed to adapt and learn how to navigate social behaviors within that culture. Even in English-speaking countries there can be differences; while those of us in the United States often ask for the “bathroom”, Canadians refer to it as the “washroom”. The second major response is socialization, which refers to the process of learning the social norms of a culture. This can include what it means to be a daughter, husband, student, etc. and the societal expectations within those roles.

    Dominant culture refers to the major aspects of culture that you find in a society. If you think back to our previous discussion a few paragraphs ago, we mentioned that culture helps to guide language, customs, values, food, etc. Given that, how would you describe the dominant culture in the United States? White? English-speaking? Middle class? Christian? These are just a few terms that are often used to describe the dominant U.S. culture. While you may disagree or find you do not fit into those categories, a key distinction of dominant culture is that it is often maintained through our institutions. These can be our political and economic institutions (we will go into more detail about these in our discussions in Module 3 on Class and Socioeconomic Status), churches, schools, and media. When you examine the leaders in most of these areas, you find they would meet the criteria listed above.

    When people begin to believe that their culture is best and that any others are strange, inferior, or wrong, it is referred to as ethnocentrism. At its roots, ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture is correct and superior to all others, any other culture is not an equally viable option. Perhaps you have seen photos like this one that demonstrate ethnocentrism:

    The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism. Cultural relativism refers to an attempt to understand other cultures within the context of your own cultural beliefs. For example, if you religiously identify as Methodist and attend services and participate regularly, perhaps you can identify with Jews or Muslims who also have religious beliefs that impact their daily living, customs, and values.

    Culture and School

    So, what does culture have to do with education? There are two main ways that culture interacts with our education system. First, culture influences what and how we learn, and second, greater experiences with a dominant culture often equal greater success within that culture.

    To elaborate on how culture influences what and how we learn, we can look to history for some strong examples of this. One of the most blatant ones was the introduction of geocentric versus heliocentric theory. Prior to the work of Galileo, most scientists and certainly the influential Catholic church, fully believed the Earth was at the center of the solar system. However, mounting scientific evidence showed the sun was actually at the center. Was the church and culture quick to change their opinion based on scientific evidence? Not exactly. Galileo was subjected to Roman Inquisition by the church and put on house arrest in 1615. It was not until 1992 that the Catholic church apologized for the handling of Galileo.

    While this may be a more extreme example, we continue to see culture influencing other aspects of learning today. The topics surrounding climate change, evolution, sex education, and others continue to be influenced in school settings by politicians and dominant U.S. culture.

    The second way culture is important to education is that the more experiences a person has with dominant culture, the more likely they are to be successful within that culture. Sociologists often discuss these experiences as cultural capital, a symbolic credit a person would acquire by having more experiences with dominant culture. It is important to realize here, however, that all students come to school with some capital, it just may not be the capital schools expect them to have. Research tells us that there are two tiers of the most valuable cultural capital. Tier one activities include things like reading at least three hours per week, owning a home computer, attending preschool, and having exposure to performing arts (playing an instrument, chorus, etc.). Tier two experiences, those that research has shown important, but not as large of an impact, are things such as, having high family educational expectations, rules limiting television and screen time, participating in sports teams or clubs, completing arts and crafts activities, and exposure to lots of different types of music. Other examples of capital students may have that schools may not value in curriculum and assessment include things like knowing how to navigate public transit, cultivating and growing a garden, knowing how to birth a calf or other animal, and knowing how to load and shoot a shotgun.

    Families are often erroneously blamed for not providing their children with the cultural capital needed to succeed in schools. These children are often labeled as having a cultural deficit or experiencing cultural deprivation (a somewhat insensitive and biased term). The issue these terms are attempting to define, however, is a real one. The challenge for educators is that often the expected knowledge and experiences of students do not actually line up with their actual knowledge and experiences. Essentially, there is a gap between what our schools expect students to know and have experienced and what students actually know and have experienced.

    Compensatory programs are programming, funding, and other assistance that school systems and communities have put in place to address these gaps. Field trips and community schools are just a few examples of such programs. The following table includes several different programs you may see in schools and communities:

    Examples of Compensatory Programs

    Title I of Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA)

    Programs and support services for the disabled

    Head Start

    Family literacy programs

    Language instruction

    Extended day instruction

    Transportation services

    Computer instruction