June 22, 2008

Graduations as cultural artifacts

Jan Hoffman has an interesting piece in today's New York Times on eighth-grade graduations. This is in response to Barack Obama's Father's Day speech, when he mentioned and criticized the opulence of middle-school graduations. I spoke with Hoffman in the middle of the week as she was scrambling to put together material for the story, and I think she gets several key things right: this is an early-adolescent rite of passage (she mentions bar/bat mitzvahs, quinceanera parties, and so forth), she points out that these ceremonies have multiple interpretations, and she provides several examples of educators struggling with the balance between celebrating transitions and keeping things in perspective. My favorite sentence:

Modern eighth-grade graduations have become a tangle of outdated definitions of a successful education, inducements to remain in school, and contemporary values about self-esteem and enshrining a child's many rites of passage.

The two historians of education quoted in the story are less critical than Obama or others: Diane Ravitch puts it in the context of childhood rites of passage (celebrating education struck her as better than several other possibilities), and Jonathan Zimmerman suggests that it's okay to celebrate eighth-grade graduation if a good proportion of students might not finish high school. I suspect that attitude will grate on Senator Obama's nerves, but I'll just let them talk it over themselves. (That's a joke, readers: I think Zimmerman would make a fine adviser on education history matters, but I have absolutely no evidence Obama is asking education advice from him.)

Coincidentally, my class was reading Sandra Stein's The Culture of Education Policy for yesterday's class, and since Stein discussed the role of Oscar Lewis and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in national poverty policy debates in the 1960s, Obama's speech was part of the mix, as was a Bill Cosby clip. I tried looking for Dan Quayle's talking about Murphy Brown from 1992, but I couldn't find a clip. I was hoping to provoke at least one student double-take when I juxtaposed Quayle and Obama. On that I failed, but I did have time to connect the political rhetoric around culture to the works of John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham and then explain the common criticisms of Ogbu's work.

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Posted in Education policy on June 22, 2008 12:02 AM |