A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Systemic Reform: Perspectives on Personalizing Education--Sept. 1994

Research Knowledge and Policy Issues in Cultural Diversity and Education

Roland G. Tharp

The increasing diversity of cultural and ethnic groups in American schools has led to a parallel increase in concern for the implications of this demographic shift for education. Research on cultural issues in education is by no means complete. But fortunately pertinent literature from other disciplines, notably anthropology and linguistics, is available and to some degree we can invoke the parallel concerns of child-service delivery programs in mental health, social service, public health, and community development. There is more scatter than focus in the national research agenda, but there are also indications for a more coherent program of inquiry. Altogether, there may be sufficient evidence to indicate some basic policy directions for effective education of a diverse population. The purpose of this paper is to consider these issues at a broad level, in the hope of pointing in profitable directions, both for policy and the research that can continue to guide policy.

The Basic Questions

The implications of cultural membership for the education of children can be phrased as four basic questions.

  1. Can we account for important current student features in terms of the historical forces operating on his or her ancestors in a time frame of hundreds to thousands of years? That is, does the ethnogenetic level of analysis, which lies in the dimension of time between phylogenesis and ontogenesis, provide guidance for the design of effective educational programs?

  2. Are culture members privileged in the capacity to teach, administer or investigate the education of their children?

  3. Are there forms of education that are specifically or uniquely suited for the treatment of children of different cultures? Or,

  4. Are there general or universal forms of schooling and teaching that will equally and adequately address students of diverse cultures?

Each of these questions will be addressed in turn.

1) Can Ethnogenetic Analysis Contribute to the Design of Effective Educational Programs?

What is a culture? Even more fundamentally, what is an ethnic group? Ethnic boundaries are not fixed; they are dynamic, evolving, and responsive to political and economic forces (Dominguez, 1985). As a critical current example, for certain purposes--whether political, policy, or language research--all Spanish-speaking groups consider themselves, and are considered by outsiders, as a single "Hispanic" ethnic or cultural group. For other purposes, Hispanics differentiate among themselves: Cuban-, Mexican-, and Puerto Rican-Americans celebrate their distinctions as well as their common causes.

While there is little in educational research that addresses important differences within broad ethnic groups, there is considerable attention paid to the issue in clinical services research. For example, Everett, Proctor, and Cartnell (1983) point out the vast intertribal, interclan, urban-traditional, and individual differences among American Indian clients. Isomura, Fine, & Lin (1987) discuss the differences in offering services to Japanese immigrant families of the first, second and third generations. While people expect respect and understanding of their culture and values, they resent being seen merely as a representative of a cultural central tendency.

Perhaps even more critical is the issue of intra-cultural variability. Within all cultures, there are variations of considerable magnitude. How are these differences to be addressed? For example, within any cultural group, motivation, social organization, and ways of speaking and thinking vary with education, income, and class status. Broad educational prescriptions for "Hawaiians" or "African Americans" or "Native Indians" are often resented by culture members who are not well described by these generalizations. Culture and education research has tended to focus on those members of cultural groups who do less well in school, whereas there are major subcultural groups of black, Indian or Hawaiian people who do not fit these descriptions in the social science and education literature. None of this invalidates the cultural level of explanation, but it behooves us to develop a more differentiated grid for study than has yet been achieved.

A part of the research agenda must therefore be to unpack the cultural variable (Whiting, 1976) so that differentiating characteristics within culture can be understood for clinical implications for individuals. In this way culture can be analyzed for its variable influence on individuals, in contrast to approaches which assign an equal value to culture for all members of a group (e.g.,Weisner, Gallimore & Jordan, 1988). Gallimore et.al. (1991), investigating the correlates of academic success for children of Mexican immigrants, found that the domestic variable with the strongest relationship to child school success is whether the father uses skills of literacy/numeracy in his employment (not the level of father's education). This kind of finer grained analysis of cultural and community life allows us accurately to perceive the dynamics of the daily cultural life of the individual child.

Figure 1 presents a conceptual scheme that places ethnogenetic analysis within a comprehensive framework of four levels of developmental processes which contribute to every human event, which are interactive, and all of which are potent in present time (Tharp,in press).

[Figure 1 omitted]

The phylogenetic level of causation operates through processes that we term "evolutionary" and, in human development, in spans of time between aeons and millennia. In clinical work, detailed phylogenetic analysis is not often employed, but is present in the background as a set of limitations, such as the processes of maturation that produce predictable changes in psychomotor coordination, language capacities, or the sexual drives of adolescence. The effects of phylogenetic processes may be altered, disguised, or emphasized by historical or biographical or acquisitional events, but all other levels of genetic process are conditioned by the phylogenetic.

The ontogenetic level of causation operates through processes that we describe as "biographical," in timespans roughly between a century and decades. Ontogenetic analysis is foundational to traditional psychology, in the sense of accounting for present conditions by reference to life history. In most human services, ontogenetic processes are systematically invoked: family dynamics are treated in an effort to alter major continuing influences on children's lives; or major new socialization figures may be introduced through removal from the home, in the knowledge that the parents, teachers, and heroes of childhood exercise great force in creating life history.

In education we are more accustomed to considering microgenetic processes--which operate through the agents of mentors, teachers, and other adults who teach children particulars. The microgenetic level operates through acquisitional processes (of learning, imitation, and the like) and in time periods that vary from decades to moments.

Each of these factors is potent in present time and operate simultaneously; each conditions the processes below it.

Seldom considered, however, is the level of causation that operates in processes that we call historical, and in time periods between millennia and centuries. In Figure 1, that level is labelled ethnogenetic, meaning the process whereby a people (that is, an ethnic group) comes into being and modifies the terms of its existence.

This "funnel and filter" conception is the latest revision (see, e.g., Tharp & Burns, 1989) of my efforts to schematize this layering of genetic levels. The concept itself derives from L. S. Vygotsky, and many of his interpreters have made similar efforts (e.g., Engstrom, 1990). Versions of this conception are beginning to impact American academic developmental psychology, but ethnogenesis as an explanatory level has been historically and peculiarly absent from major theoretical systems of western psychology. This is in spite of the obvious: conditions of human life, present in every significant transaction, flow from historical processes, processes that have matured for hundreds of years, and that operate causatively in present time.

By introducing this model, I hope to suggest a way that we may consider cognitive and educational issues and policies at the ethnogenetic level, that is by taking into account the historical processes of culture of origin, but considering them as they are filtered by events and forces in individual life history, learning experiences, and current conditions. Ethnogenetic analysis does not per se discount more contemporary and individual developmental events; to consider less than the entire layered funnel of developmental processes would indeed result in stereotypy, and deny the richness of the individual differences in accommodation characteristic of the members of each ethnic group.

Can the ethnogenetic level of analysis provide guidance for the design of effective educational programs? Yes, within a balance, and within limits.


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[Table of Contents] [2) Are Culture Members Privileged in the Capacity to Contribute to the Education of Their Children?]