In a class of their own

LEARNING TOGETHER:“Representations for cultural diversity should begin at early stages of education, as young minds are more willing to challenge their biases.” Picture shows migrant children studying at a private school in Bengaluru under the Right to Education quota. — PHOTO: K. Bhagya Prakash  

It was on a Saturday, I read a mildly angry email regarding an assignment from a business honours student at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I really wish your instructions could be clearer,” he said. “I can’t really see the point sitting in front of a computer for hours trying to figure it out.”

I met this student on campus that afternoon. After helping him with the assignment, we engaged in casual talk. I explained my teaching philosophy that my goal is to train students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers and not just to follow instructions.

The next day the student wrote, “Yesterday, you taught me a very good life lesson, maybe more valuable than anything else I will learn.” He then requested a meeting to speak something very personal and to discuss the reason for his first email.

What transpired after his frank talk left me dumbstruck, numb, and feeling really good!

He confessed that his original email was triggered by his own biases and prejudices growing up. He came from a small town in East Texas with ties to white supremacist groups of the past. He explained that growing up, all of his friends had been white. He went to church and social functions that were entirely white. His interactions with non-whites particularly those with foreign origins were few and far between. He was used to hearing racist language, including frequent use of the “N” word. There was a deep institutional racism. He carried those prejudices with him, but coming to The University of Texas (UT) at Austin had been a culture shock. He was now in a highly diversified campus — students, staff, and faculty alike.

He said that when he saw me in class speaking with an accent, he was skeptical that I — as a non-white — could be in a position of “authority” over him. He was not used to it and not ready to accept that authority. Growing up, he subconsciously assumed that only whites will succeed and others were not smart. He expected that only white professors would be teaching in a prestigious honours program at the University. He rationalised his thoughts that in his high school all students and teachers in advanced classes were white. My reputation as a “Distinguished Teaching Professor” with a large number of teaching awards was not enough to gain his trust. Simply, I didn’t meet his primary criterion for success and competency: skin colour.

Our interactions made him think deep and honestly of his conscious and subconscious views of non-whites. He questioned his beliefs of being better by virtue of his race. He realised that his elite Business Honours Program, which enrolls the top one to two per cent of graduating high school seniors, had a large number of non-white students. While Asians comprise only a meagre three per cent of the Texas population, they make up nearly half of all business honours students at UT. He recognized that some of the brightest students in his classes were not white, and despite my appearance and accent, he was inspired by my passion for teaching.

This is the single most important experience of my teaching career. It is profound because it reinforces the power of cultural diversity. It provides not only an exposure to, and awareness of, different ethnic and racial groups but also the chance to socialise with them.

Exposure to cultural diversity allows us to deconstruct misconceptions and stereotypes and break down barriers. If not for this experience, he would have likely continued to seek things that reinforced his beliefs, and the cycle of disrespect for other cultures and intolerance would have continued.

He has since graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. I spoke to him again and he strongly feels that he is a better person for studying in a diverse environment. His education transformed him so much that he was attracted to public policy issues. He was selected to a highly coveted fellowship programme where he worked with members of Congress. While he could have joined a leading investment bank given his stellar record in the honours programme, he became deeply committed to Kindergarten to 12-grade teaching, particularly to the underprivileged and minority children. He now teaches at a school that is 97 per cent Hispanic and is hoping to join a Ph.D. programme.

This is the “rich” educational experience offered to all students in a culturally diverse environment. Often a race-conscious admission process focuses on fair representation of population profiles in the student body. More recent court verdicts focus on race-conscious holistic admission process that enhances overall student learning experience. However, often missing in the discussions are the benefits not only for under-represented groups, but also to the mainstream population as well.

My experience above strikes a powerful resemblance to my discussion with many Indian-origin friends who are angry that Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) and backward classes students are being admitted to professional schools on reservation.

I gently asked one angry individual, “How many SC/STs do you know?” He began to search for an answer, which I interpreted as none.

I personally know SC/STs who came from not-so-great background and are doing very well professionally because of the opportunities they got. I am glad I interacted with them during my education and work life to know more about their upbringing and culture. If not I would have argued the same way my friend did.

Of course, I will not advocate to lower academic standard much just to find the diverse body since lack of preparedness of a few not only affect the person admitted, but also everyone in class.

The problem in India is that reservations are used at professional schools purely for representation without much regard to academic readiness or social integration. There are abuses of the system that bring numerous conflicts. Instead, such representations for cultural diversity should begin at early stages of education — at primary school level both in government and private schools. Young minds are more willing to challenge their biases and such transformation is necessary in order to evolve into a perfect society. It solves the academic preparedness and social integration.

(Prabhudev Konana is William H. Seay centennial professor and distinguished teaching professor at the University of Texas at Austin.E-mail: pkonana@mail.utexas.edu.)

Exposure to cultural diversity allows us to deconstruct misconceptions and stereotypes and break down barriers