On Lisa Delpit’s “An Interview on Tolerance” (by Guest Blogger Katie Scribner)


“In reality, what many teachers call basic skills are only those skills that middle-class children gain in the first five years of life from their homes. We need to appreciate the skills all kids bring in and give them opportunities to express those skills and teach them the ones that they don’t bring in”.

                                                                                                -Lisa Delpit

SchoolBusDuring the interview Delpit discusses the “culture of power” and how that implicitly categorizes students into academic “haves” and “have-nots”. She explains that the power issues have to do with how well what children learn at home matches what is presented to them in the classroom. For example, she introduces a 6 year old who could not do worksheets on money. In a classroom setting this looks like a special needs issue, or a student who has fallen behind, when in reality he was already doing real money in real life. He loaded the coin operated laundry machines in his building as he did the laundry for his entire family of mother and siblings. These circumstances elude to the idea of this not being a middle-class home. I find one contradiction in Delpit’s statement as she claims that basic skills in an education system are determined by those presented of the middle-class, but introduces ideas that middle class-kids are too dependent on their parents and have not learned some of these basic “Real life” skills like the six year old has. Not only has he learned how money works, counting, and basic math, he is also learning essential domestic duties that he will use in the future. I do however agree with Delpit that a culture of power does exist and teachers should play a large role in helping all students gain access to it, if they want to.

The Question:

The question I have is How does one directly teach all students who aren’t white/middle-class/English speaking the explicit codes of the culture while at the same time meeting the needs of those who have already mastered the code?  And how would you do this as a teacher while making sure no child is ostracized or out casted?




17 thoughts on “On Lisa Delpit’s “An Interview on Tolerance” (by Guest Blogger Katie Scribner)

  1. I see a few ways to approach this issue. Firstly, I would make sure that when education is approached is uses measures that are abstract in comparison with what is currently used. The child highlighted in your post seems to have bigger issues that just being unable to do a worksheet. This is pure speculation on my part but I imagine if the child did not have so many responsibilities outside of school they would be able to expend their energy to focus on school. What I am getting at is the issue is two fold. One is the domestic duties of the child are not enhancing their learning in the academic setting. The second issue is that when the school does not take into account the outside environment and label the student as a possible “special needs” student it can delay the student from reaching their potential. Secondly, I think when teaching we should try to get social/racial teaching methods out as much as possible and if we are teaching in a primarily white/black neighborhood/school we should make sure that whatever we are teaching is appropriate for that setting.
    On a personal note: I grew up in a very affluent white neighborhood in Utah. I was a poverty stricken multiracial male from a single parent home. When I was in school life outside of it occupied my time and had a huge influence with my ability to complete simple tasks. The intellectual capacity was there however the ability to partake was not. Without going into a long sob story I feel like if the support of the community there to help students outside there would be dramatic improvements inside.

    • Amir, what do you mean by “if we are teaching in a primarily white/black neighborhood/school we should make sure that whatever we are teaching is appropriate for that setting”? Doesn’t that further segregation? I cannot see a defensible argument for how the contents in a math class ought to be appropriately taught according to racial socio-economics. The only way to have a democracy is to grant equal access and opportunity, and not differentiated treatment. If I was African-American I would find it condescending that somebody thought I need to be addressed in a “certain” way.

      I’ve seen people in Academia who believe African-Americans won’t profit from reading Shakespeare, because he is a “white dead male”. Yet I have profited greatly from Ralph Ellison’s writing. What is appropriate in education if not a good education that focuses on the universal, and not on the specific? Because we all know the specific already, from the cradle.

      If we try to universalize the specific, people complain we are imposing a culture over another. But that doesn’t mean that the universal isn’t there. Anyone who doesn’t see this is not ready to live in a democracy, in my opinion.

      • What I mean by that is: When we teach in specific neighborhoods that have a particular racial makeup, we should be aware of this and teach accordingly. It does not mean we want to work towards segregation but be culturally competent, just to clarify.

      • I agree with Amir here. Now it does not read into him saying that the schools and their educational structure should be geared fully around the culture of the community, because yes, Nelson you are correct that would possibly create more segregation which if I understand the purpose of the class is the opposite of what we are trying to do. However, I do believe that curriculum should be structured so we are not systematically washing away the heritage of our students.
        Nelson, you mention math, as a mathematics major, I will be the first to say that the ‘story type’ problems that children see when they are in their youth are probably not written the best considering their ‘blanket of students that it needs to cover.’ However, I think that mathematics is on the single most important subjects that is being completely over looked by students right now. Do we need different text books for different socioeconomic regions, I think not. I think what we do need is competent teachers that teach to the students and their experiences. You need to relate to the absorber of the material otherwise he/she will not care. I would be the first to argue that mathematics is poorly taught in our school systems and as such we are losing students to what is a beautiful and enriching experience.
        I feel as if our nation is in a huge paradigm shift when it comes to the education of our youth and no one has quite figured anything great out yet. But we have began to admit that there is a problem which I believe is a huge step forward.

      • Kyle, but if a student can’t understand the “story type” problem, this has to do also with how well English is being taught, no?

        I find it funny that some people talk about Standard English as an evil imposition, when it is the language of government and commerce at large. Talk about integration… without it you will never be integrated anywhere.

        Thanks for the replies, guys. I still don’t quite get what it means to be culturally competent, though. Would you care to talk more about what you mean when you, Kyle, write “I do believe that curriculum should be structured so we are not systematically washing away the heritage of our students”?
        Do you mean keeping historical out of the history books, or what?

  2. You make a few good points that are well articulated. I agree that we should try to get socially racial teaching methods into the classroom that are productive to a particular community and teachers should be adaptable to cultures within their community. However, I do think that the overall argument lies within the question, Is it the domestic duties that are not enhancing his learning in an academic setting, or is it the academic setting that is not enhancing his domestic, social, and problem-solving skills to survive in a post high school world? We need to consider more of the skills required to succeed in todays society, those that have certainly changed since the education infrastructure was developed during the industrial revolution days

    • I hear you, Katie. But I find it truly terrible that we should transform our schools in training camps for the job market and “real life” (isn’t being a child and learning in school part of real life?). We should be all honest about this, and just teach our kids how to be cynical, how to lie, how to be individualistic, if they are to have the survival skills needed. We don’t believe in that, do we?

      When we talk about getting funding for the arts in school, we are trying to humanize those kids – those skills are not needed in the “real world.” The mission of the educator is broader and nobler. I’ve seen Professors at PSU who can’t spell anything right and Literature teachers who have never read a novel by Flaubert. It’s a calamity. I will die thinking the goal of a good education is to form independent minds, capable of making decisions, capable to situate themselves in their own context and circumstance, with a universal perspective. This is a lot more useful than transmitting a set of skills. Useful, that is, if we care about the future.

      That’s what ruined the universities in this country! When University CEOs began to measure the success of their institutions by how many alumni get employed… it’s messed up.

      I know that isn’t quite where you’re getting at, but still. Had to rant.

      • Nelson,
        Man it seems that you and I are just going to differ in opinion all over the place today. How can you possibly consider it a bad thing that our university system is actively trying to push graduates into employment. I would agree with you that the failure of our university system is rising tuition costs coupled with extreme bureaucracy which forces students out.
        I think you get out of the college experience what you put into it. I did not attend PSU with achieving something ‘braoder and nobler.’ I went because a BS is the path to the job that I want. Interestingly enough, I am the norm. (Or in this situation I would like to think so.) I can not believe someone would realistically put themselves THOUSANDS (if not tens of thousands) of dollars in dept to get a Literature degree or a Philosophy degree (both I admit are very enriching and beautiful subjects of humanities) without a plan of ‘what next.’
        You mention professors at PSU that cannot spell, or literature professors haven’t read Flaubert, and in the same breath I can say that I have seen professors at PSU that can barely speak English but have given the most amazing and enriching lectures I have been to (In numerical analysis none the less) and Philosophy professors who have sat down and talked about the philosophy of Set Theory after class. When you have a university as large as PSU. there is going to be a bell curve when it comes to the quality of instruction. For every shit professor that I have had a PSU (and yes there has been at least 4) I have had some of the most incredible professors I can imagine.
        I for one think that it is great that PSU tries to push its students in such a way that the alumni of PSU are able to find jobs. Maybe at least this way our alumni can work on paying back their student loans so that bubble does not burst before I finish my masters.

      • That’s not what I meant, Kyle. I am saying that employability and a good education are not the same thing. Employability is geared toward, well, training and specialization in a specific set of skills. Education means something else. It is geared toward citizenship, the universal heritage of the past, the formation of the mind. The problem is that this is disappearing because, in the paradigm we have now, EVERYONE HAS TO go to the university in order to survive. And that is transforming the university in a market-driven institution. If you don’t think that is a problem, consider at least that all the issues of inequality we have discussed this term have something to do with the fact that this is a society where nearly all our values are regulated by market rules. Let’s not be naive to think that things such as racial, gender-based, economic emancipationist discourses are free from the logic of the market. PSU is an institution that allows politics to intervene in its educational approach to a very large extent, precisely because it understands that the more radical and specific it becomes, the more clients/students it will get. Looking at it from the outside, you are tempted to think that PSU is just pushing variety and tolerance. In reality it is simply surrendering the educational philosophy of the university to the whims of the market. This is a tendency everywhere now, not just here in the US. And I am persuaded this is a symptom of life in a hijacked democracy in the 21st century.

        If we all really wanted to push for equity, we would do away with the economic necessity of going to college, and change how we approach values. It is not granted that a mathematician should make more money than a seamstress. If we all agree that the two things have different values, what is it that authorizes us to place one above the other? There’s something very artificial about this paradigm.

        I find it deplorable that anything today, in order to survive, has to become a commodity. We only allow something to exist as long as it is a commodity, meaning that it has applicability. Remember when you complained about the “one size fits all” approach to testing? Well, that is what I am saying. If something is not quantifiable, then it doesn’t exist for us.

      • By the way, if you want to know a good liberal philosophy of the University in this country, check out the first volume in the Britannica “Great Books” series, published in the 1950s in cooperation with the University of Chicago. The program was designed by two of the greatest philosophers of education of the 20th century, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, in cooperation. The first was a man of the Left, the second was conservative. There you go, a good example of how differing views can still work together.

  3. I think the only way to directly teach all students the explicit codes of the culture is to simply, directly teach it. I don’t think that there needs to be a special way around teaching these things to kids who aren’t part of the dominant culture because as long you are teaching these things and they’re learning, then it should be as simple as that. And for those that have already mastered it, I think the best way is to incorporate those students into the lessons as “teachers”; having those kids teach their peers who don’t know not only lets them be part of the lesson even though they already know these things but it gives them an opportunity to help out, to feel like they know something, to contribute more to the class than just another student. I’ve seen this in kids and also in adults, when the one’s who know gets the opportunity to share their knowledge with the rest of the class, specifically more to those who don’t know, there just a sense of accomplishment about them.

  4. How did America become one of the leading innovative countries, develop the strongest military, and be the first to land on the moon? I can tell you it was NOT by just letting “children be children” in the classroom,or letting them explore academics aimlessly while promoting the formation of independent minds! No, there has always been an end goal in sight and it is to provide job skills for an independent future and to better the future for our children/country.
    This is almost an innate human trait to seek personal and world success, this is why the abrupt halt of education after one’s elementary years like in some African or third world countries is so devastating to their economic system. The point is, if we are not teaching post-public school skills to succeed and attending K-12 all those years to leave with nothing tangible for our future, then what is the point? I want opportunities and that is what education provides.
    I agree with Kyle when he states that he has attended college as a path to his job, so have I. And I too have had some of the most incredible, diverse professors at Portland State imaginable and a few crappy as well. The incredible part about them lies within their ability to adapt to the setting in the classroom and teach to the overall tone of the gender, cultural, and academic makeup of the students, gearing each lesson towards our abilities, understanding, and triggering our “Absorbers” so we are engaged. Teachers need to incorporate into story problems, like math for example, well known places and people in their communities to make the stories tangible and more effective. This is an example of teaching to the “Culture of power”, in a collective way, not a segregating way, encompassing the commonalities of the students while also allowing individual expression. Producing post educational employment rates from a University, if reliable provides vital information about the community and hope to those in search of a college education and a better life.

  5. This I believe is another one of those huge questions and struggles with teaching. And that is the question “how do we teach the students who aren’t white/ middle class/ english speaking, and still meet the needs of the students who are. And on top of that how to not leave anyone, or make anyone feel left out” And I know its easier said then done, but I feel like the answer is, you just have to do it. I realize it’s not that simple, but what I’m trying to say is teachers should be reviewing their lessons and making sure that they do have modifications for assignments that will help those students who need different attention and at the same time is still challenging for the rest of the students.

    I’m taking a “teaching as a career” class right now and it’s been really nice because a lot of what we are learning in that class is related to what we are learning in this class. We have had lessons on the subject of multicultural students, and ELL and ESL and how to incorporate and work with that in the classroom. I’m reminded of things I learned in that class what reading this article and all your comments (other comments on this post). What I meant earlier about teachers modifying their lessons is for example if you assigned a certain amount of reading to your class and you had some ESL or ELL students who read really slow, you could give them the highlighted sections they should focus on. This also makes me think back to the whole there should be different ways of testing. In the reading, from what I understand, this little boy knows math (clearly he has even a basic concept of money) but he struggles with the worksheets. This reminds me of other things I have read about students who English is not their first language. There are students who if they wrote a paper their writing and English would be below grade level, but if they wrote a paper in their first language they would be above grade level. What I’m getting at is teachers should know their students. In these examples the students are smart, they do know things, but maybe are just struggling with the way we are asking them to show their knowledge. I know it is almost impossible these days for teachers with large classes to get around to every student and give them the individual attention they need, whether they are an ELL student or an “average” student. It almost seems impossible, but in my opinion thats what we need.

    Earlier in the comments I think it was Nelson and Kyle, had mentioned culture. What I believe is that students cultures should be integrated into the classroom, not ignored. In a diverse classroom there is so much that can be learned from different cultures, and students who have different backgrounds. From what I understand though many classrooms don’t embrace that diversity. It’s like we want all the students to conform to one culture, and not acknowledge any cultural difference. It would be great if in classrooms teachers could find a way to incorporate the students differences when teaching a lesson.

    • I agree with your suggestions and solutions Chelsea, especially about incorporating all cultures into a classroom. This gets tricky in the US as we don’t really have much of a “White” culture or traditions that date back for centuries, we are too new. Yet we are still confronted with those cultural practices of others as we have greatly earned the name of
      “The melting Pot” of a country with our blending of different ethnicities. This gives us great character but causes us to question our identities and perhaps hold on tighter to what we think is our culture, instead if being so accepting of others. In the schools this causes riff because which one do we choose to highlight and academically expand on without loosing the little bit of culture that we have created ourselves? I agree that each teacher should provide for the academic and specific cultural needs to their classroom and be careful in the inclusion or exclusion of any student, carefully tailoring their lesson plans to meet each child’s needs as a group. But they must be given the tools to do so.

  6. I think this is a very difficult thing to do in a country that tends to be segregated when it comes to race. When there are clear majorities and minorities the sort of teaching you propose becomes hard to imagine. It becomes even more challenging for the minority if most teachers look more like the majority than those who fit into the minority category. Short of having teachers and administrators learn about the mixture of students who live in their school’s neighborhoods I’m not sure how to really make this an actuality. Interviewing kids and parents to get better ideas of what their children’s lives away from school look like would be helpful, but who would be willing or have the time to do that? Then one would have to wonder just how full of a picture could be painted from a selection of testimonials. The most practical way to aid with this issue may be making sure the teaching population is as diverse as possible, or matches the student population as closely as possible. Once again this may be challenge to carry out it. I do agree that catering to student’s cultures and needs would be very beneficial for them though.

  7. One way to deal with this is to take each child aside individually and work with them, even the white middle class students because there are always more they can learn. I know this idea is difficult for some teachers to accomplish, especially with the larger class sizes, but with hard work it might be possible. Working with each student individually and privately protects them from being singled out while still allowing the teacher to work with the students on whatever they need help in. Since students are always at different levels as well, this will probably help them to feel more comfortable and less on the spot then if they were in front of their peers. Now, i don’t believe there will be a clear cut answer for this problem, we will always have some problems in this area, but there are ways to work around it if you work hard enough.

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