Commentary | Education

Lessons—When Culture Affects How We Learn

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


When Culture Affects How We Learn

By Richard Rothstein

Students in South Korea outperform American students on comparative tests. And when Koreans immigrate here, they do relatively well in school. But Korean students in Japan do relatively poorly.

West Indian students in the United States have done better in school, on average, than other black Americans. But West Indians do relatively poorly in Britain.

Talking about cultural influences on achievement makes Americans uncomfortable. We have replaced the metaphor of a “melting pot,” where differences blur, with a patchwork quilt, where each piece plays an equal role.

But cultures differ in many ways, including academic orientation. Not all cultures react similarly to the same national environments; groups often perform differently in different places.

John Ogbu, a University of California anthropologist, says that some oppressed groups defend themselves by adopting values (like scorning academic success) opposed to the majority. He suspects this is true less for voluntary immigrants than for oppressed minorities. This could explain why Koreans or West Indians, in this country voluntarily, do relatively well in school, but Koreans taken to Japan as conquered subjects, or West Indians who settle in England (the colonial motherland) do not.

Schools in the United States are beginning to report separate scores for minority students. Educators are unsure how to use these data. Perhaps schools are educating low-scoring groups badly. But scores, in part, may also reflect cultural orientations.

Because inter-group relations are so sensitive, it is dangerous to discuss cultural or class differences in achievement. Americans are not alone in confronting this. Japan simply refuses to collect student background data.

According to Kaoru Okamoto at the Japanese education ministry, it is taboo to identify scores of the Buraku, an underclass once relegated to jobs like gravedigging. “Because Japan sees itself as a classless society, highlighting such differences would be contrary to Japanese norms,” Mr. Okamoto says.

To think that differences will disappear if we deny they exist may be typically Japanese but it is un-American.

If you don’t identify a problem, you can’t solve it. With new immigrants to the United States from many nations, failing to acknowledge culture could impede efforts to educate all pupils to their maximum potential.

Certainly, some cultural attitudes leading to failure are reactions to discrimination. Prof. Claude Steele of Stanford studies how stereotypes affect motivation. When he gave black students a test on which, he warned them, blacks usually scored worse than whites, the students did poorly. When he tested students with no warning, scores were higher.

But even where self-defeating attitudes are reactions to discrimination, they cannot easily be erased. Other cultural traits are even harder to change. One scholar compared Japanese and American mothers, finding that the Japanese expected toddlers to share toys with playmates while the Americans expected them to express opinions.

Another researcher found that Mexican mothers emphasized obedience more than exploration. And in his memoir, Nelson Mandela said that, as a child, he was expected to “learn through imitation,” not by questioning. Mr. Mandela said he was “dumbfounded by the number and nature of questions” that white children asked “and their parents’ unfailing willingness to answer.”

Certainly, such differences affect learning, although how schools should address them is unclear. And Xhosa culture did not prevent Mr. Mandela from becoming a creative leader and scholar. Culture, like poverty, is not deterministic. But neither is it irrelevant.

Cultures influence group vocational choices and performance. Thomas Sowell in “Race and Culture” (Basic Books, 1994) describes how, in the early 20th century, Jews and Italians came to America poor, yet their children reacted differently to school and then entered different occupations. Jews and Italians took similar paths in Australia and Argentina. Overseas Chinese gravitated to retailing in so many countries that discrimination cannot explain it.

Educators who do not acknowledge group differences cannot address them. In “The Black-White Test Score Gap” (Brookings, 1998), Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips say that changing how parents deal with children “may be the single most important” way to improve achievement. But, they add, educators can provoke accusations of ethnocentrism if they urge parents from groups with low average performance to change child-rearing practices.

But when children from some groups, on average, do worse in school than others, their parents can use more guidance even as parents from all groups can benefit from more help. Nobody knows a good way to discuss this, but ignoring it is the Japanese way, not the American.

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