On Common Ground: Diversity, Partnership, and Community

By Thomas R. Whitaker

The image on our cover seems a delicate abstraction, a subtle study in tones and shades. And that is how the painter himself, Byron Kim, often chooses to see it. But its title Synecdoche­that figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole­offers a clue to its representational content and figurative meanings. Synecdoche is composed of hundreds of small panels, each based on close observation of one person's skin color on a forearm or the back of the neck. Kim's subjects include friends and family, randomly selected visitors to the Brooklyn Public Library, where he teaches adult literacy, students at Pratt Institute and the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan, and students at the Blackham Middle School in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The part stands for the whole? Each panel then is a whole person. And each panel or person also suggests and participates in the larger whole‹a remarkable American design of diversity, partnership, and community. And so, employing our own synecdoche, we choose the vision of this Korean-American painter to stand for the entire Number #7 of On Common Ground, which is devoted to just such possibilities.

We are concerned here with several kinds of diversity and community, which often overlap each other. And we are concerned with several models of school-university partnership. Each essay will stake out its own ground and view matters from its own perspective. We have made no attempt to include all possible points of view, but we invite responses from our readers that may help to round out our treatment of these issues. It should be clear that the "matrix" of this discussion‹to borrow a term that Byron Kim has used for his exhibitions and that Manuel N. Gómez will apply to our psycho-social context­is the larger community of communities, external and internal, in which we live and have our being. We have all heard much in recent years about our individual and group rights. But, as Christopher Lasch has passionately contended in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, we have heard too little about the community participation that is also inherent in our very nature, and about the responsibilities that it lays upon us. School-university partnerships will hardly gain a sure foothold in this country if not accompanied by some vision of the community that will sustain our diversity. To that end we offer these essays.

The Essays: Some Connections

The possibilities adumbrated in Byron Kim's design, of course, are yet to be fully realized in American democracy and in the education it provides for its young people. In our feature essay, Manuel Gómez argues that it "is all too tempting to lose faith in education right now," and he gives us a sad bill of particulars to support that impression. We need, he says, a firmer philosophical grounding for our vision. We "have failed to believe in diversity as intrinsic to the survival of a democratic society." And, in focusing on differences between individuals and groups, we have not grasped the fact of diversity within ourselves. We must recognize that our identities are not fixed in some binary opposition‹black-white, native-foreign, ourselves-other. Rather, "we exist within a complex matrix of shifting identities, both within and between ourselves." (Each part then stands for the whole!) Grounding ourselves in that recognition, we may tackle the task of a "reinvigoration of intellect at all levels of education," an effort that will require "a liberal arts emphasis which values the liberatory consequences of intellectual inquiry." With Richard Hofstadter and Jacques Barzun, Manuel Gómez understands "intellect" to be the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind, which can become the "communal form of live intelligence." One of the "most democratic of civic virtues," it requires that educators "model the ideal of a collaborative, egalitarian community." Only by moving in that direction, he says, can we find a sound basis for our educational partnerships. That vision requires our leap of faith.

We turn then to three essays from the New Haven experience which may bolster our faith. Each is by a member of the Yale faculty who has worked with the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, and who can speak to the benefits gained from partnership with teachers in the schools. And each, in its own way, deals with the complex intersection of communities. Howard Lamar tells how he explored, with his seminar community of schoolteachers, the history of that larger and continually changing urban community, New Haven. Richard Brodhead tells of the dialectical interaction between teachers in the university and those in the schools, through which both can broaden and enrich their own understanding of a possible educational community. And Bryan Wolf tells how, through working with school teachers and their students, he discovered ways in which he might refocus his own university teaching so that it does ampler justice to the richness of racial and ethnic communities in America.

Janet Ray Edwards then deals with the impelling national need of building educational communities around issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. She summarizes the work of several collaboratives among the many that have been sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. There is "Texts and Traditions: the Common Ground," which brings English faculty at the University of Houston together with high school English teachers from six metropolitan school districts. There is "Joining Hands in the Teaching of American Literature," a similar collaborative involving teachers at Otterbein College and in the Columbus, Ohio, schools. There is a University of Maryland project on Shakespeare which has evolved a state-wide collaborative, the Center Alliance of Secondary School Teachers, which takes scholars to teachers in their own counties. And there is "Texts and Teachers: Themes in Comparative Literature," which brings to Brown University teams of high school and college teachers from local sites selected from across the nation. Edwards suggests how adaptable is the approach of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute to an array of different settings and thematic emphases.

James W. Pipkin gives us a closer look at the detailed structure and accomplishment of the Houston project, stressing the ways in which its multicultural curriculum has avoided a sentimental insistence that "we're really all alike" and has also understood that difference and division are not the ultimate facts of our situation. In doing so, he offers yet another definition of an educational "community of peers" in relation to a "community of books." The books constitute a community, he says, "not in the sense of a monolithic or monovocal entity but in the sense of a dynamic process in which the texts constantly interact, allow for exchange of ideas, and exert a reciprocal influence on one another."

We turn then to a pair of essays that deal with the question of a multicultural curriculum at the university level. While not speaking directly of partnerships, they suggest, as Janet Ray Edwards has indicated, a major part of the context in which such partnerships must now be conceived. Ronald Takaki, author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, offers a brief account of the much-debated ways in which teachers at the University of California, Berkeley, have addressed the need to provide students with comparative multicultural experience. Richard Brodhead extends this theme with some thoughtful comments on the advantages and problems inherent in an "inclusionistic" curriculum. He also provides an account (in some ways rather like Bryan Wolf's) of one scholar's redirection of his writing and teaching so that they would more fully engage our diversity. Both essays make clear that such directions in university teaching and research have close relevance indeed to the concerns of schools that serve multicultural constituencies‹and also to schools that need to open their students' minds and imaginations to the cultural diversity that surrounds them.

We round out this issue with a series of essays about partnerships that have engaged a variety of ethnic, racial, or regional communities. First of all, Patricia McGrath and Felix Galaviz describe the Puente Project, focusing on the Mexican-American/Latino community, which is now operating in 31 community colleges and 18 high schools throughout California.

Carol Booth Olson then offers an account of acollaboration that has brought together Teacher/Consultants from the University of California, Irvine, site of the National Writing Project. The participants, who represent eleven different school districts a nd seven colleges, have designed lessons based on the UCI Writing Project's Thinking/Writing model and on multicultural literature that they have judged appropriate to the needs of their students in various schools. The result: a higher level of understanding for the teachers, an increase in both pride and tolerance in the students, and renewed inspiration for reading, writing, and thinking.

Richard Simonelli then discusses the holistic focus of "indigenous education," as grounded in the traditions of Indian cultures on this continent, and its incorporation in partnerships based at Cornell University, Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, and elsewhere. In a closely related piece, Joseph H. Suina and Laura B. Smolkin describe the Rural-Urban Teacher Education Program developed at the University of New Mexico, which, working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, places non-Indian student teachers in schools on rural Indian reservations­under the guidance of Indian partners.

Dixie Goswami then sets forth the work of the Bread Loaf Rural Teacher Network, which recruits rural teachers from six states­Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Vermont­to study at the Bread Loaf School in Vermont and to remain in contact through the computer network, BreadNet, as well as face-to-face meetings in various parts of the country. These partnerships have led to substantial rethinking of educational and curricular organization in the cooperating schools.

We reprint here an essay by one of the members of the Rural Teacher Network, Phil Sittnick. He describes his work at the Laguna Pueblo Indian Reservation in New Mexico, in a middle school designed, built, and operated by the tribe. The tribal members want their children to be prepared both for life in the world of the pueblo and for life beyond the reservation's boundaries. Phil Sittnick's participation in BreadNet has encouraged, among other things, the establishment of an Internet node at Laguna Middle School­thus providing some important ways through which Laguna students can be in touch with a world beyond the reservation.

Our occasional department, "Student Voices," includes a report by Rev. Frederick J. Streets, Chaplain and Pastor at Yale University, on his work as facilitator for a focus-group discussion with African-American high school students. Rev. Streets has found important reinforcement there for Manuel Gómez's argument that each of us exists, internally and externally, as an individual who belongs to a variety of groups. Our real diversity and community are clearly distorted by the usual political rhetoric of bi-polar opposition. In a complementary piece in "Voices from the Classroom," Sharon Floyd tells us how a Saginaw High program is meeting some of the needs specified by Rev. Streets for a curriculum that will affirm the individual, the group, andthe larger community.

In our review department, Manuel Gómez calls to our attention two remarkably different books. Teaching to Transgress, by bell hooks, is an impassioned polemic for the inclusion in our teaching of what has too often been excluded. Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror is a scholarly and revisionist history of the multicultural contributions to the life of this nation. As Gómez indicates, both of these works should provoke us to further thought and action.

The Images: Some Perspectives

Another image for diversity, partnership, and community is provided by Romare Bearden's vivid and subtle collage entitled Conjunction, which appears on page 4. Bearden's mind and art were nourished by African-American culture, by a broad range of classical and contemporary Western painters, from Vermeer and de Hooch to George Grosz and Henri Matisse, by Chinese calligraphy and landscapes, by Persian prints, Zen Buddhism, and much more. His effective community was both local and international. Much of its import is summarized by Conjunction, an image of human meeting that also depicts and enacts a meeting of many kinds of shapes, patterns, textures, materials, directions, and spaces.

With Manuel Gómez's essay, on page 5, we include a mural from the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California at Irvine. This mural, commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health for the National Conference on Refugee Services, and undertaken as a class project by UCI students, depicts the "silent suffering" of Asian/Vietnamese and Latino/Central American refugee communities. But its symbols of traditional and modern healing arts and faith (given us with something of José Orozco's power) point beyond this suffering toward a new American community.

Bryan Wolf discusses Martin Puryear's sculpture To Transcend, depicted on page 12, as a powerful image for the experience of a university faculty-member who is rethinking, in the context of a partnership, his relation to the surrounding cultural diversity. And the other images in this number of On Common Ground will bring to mind certain aspects of that diversity­both social and artistic­and the perspectives upon community that are possible within it.

To accompany the essays by James Pipkin and Ronald Takaki, with their emphasis on "One and Yet Many" and "E Pluribus Unum," we include 4-B, a heart-warming painting of 1937 by Louise Emerson Rönnebeck that hopefully depicts the school as a site of diversity and community. Rönnebeck was the wife of the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck, director of the Denver Art Museum. In the attic of their Denver home, next door to Steck Elementary School (which was attended by their two children), she painted many scenes of school children.

Aged Tutor and Young Students, by Harrison Begay, on page 24, which accompanies Richard Simonelli's essay on indigenous education, is one of several paintings in which this Navajo artist has depicted with modern stylization the traditional scene of instruction. The symbolic content of that instruction is laid out before us in the floating background­as if in a beautiful sand-painting that has become vertical.

The intensely registered forms in the painting on page 28 by Jennifer Paytiamo, a student at Laguna Middle School, not only represent her New Mexico landscape but also suggest to us­in those dark plateaus so sharply and ominously divided by a river gorge, and in the sun-drenched horizon&#`73;another figure for our present divisions and the need to bridge them.

Faith Ringgold, in the delightful quilt fantasy on page 29, Double Dutch on the Golden Gate Bridge, offers from her African-American perspective a symbolic resolution of this predicament: we must look to the children! Though technology has enabled the construction of our most famous bridges, this bridge-effect seems to be provided by playful children who float eerily above the horizon of skyscrapers even as they are doing Double-Dutch on a street in front of their apartment houses. But this visionary bridging, of course, has also been constructed by an artist who has turned a traditional woman's craft into a subtle aesthetic and social medium­and who reminds us of that conjunction in her frame of floral prints.

Finally, on the back cover, we include Bicentennial, by the Menominee/Winnebago artist Anthony Gauthier, which forcefully and deftly employs the techniques of the political poster to alert us to the collaboration required by our unfinished business as a nation. Chief Joseph and Martin Luther King join here, above reminders of a history of violence and slavery, to point toward a better way.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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