Life history and subtractive schooling

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Like others who look like me, I lived a lot of my life not even knowing I had an identity or realizing I had a culture. When I went to school, I didn’t really notice it at the time, but all of my friends looked like me.  For the most part my teachers looked like me.  I lived in a country with two official languages, however I was monolingual and to my utter dismay spoke only English.  So did my parents, playmates, and teachers.  Having no point of comparison I thought the curriculum at school was pretty standard.  I realize now that it was white and Euro-centric.  I’m revealing my age, but in elementary school I actually read those Dick and Jane books.  The people in books looked like me.  It wasn’t until high school that a teacher chose the story of Shanawdithit (the last surviving Beothuck Indian) to dramatize, and I realized that life is lived from multiple perspectives, but that history is generally recounted from a dominant perspective. Both my parents finished high school, but neither had completed college degrees.  Dropping out of school was not only not an option, but university was definitely in the cards, even if we had to count on scholarships and financial aid to swing it.  In other words, I had what Bourdieu and others termed “cultural capital”.  The knowledge and skills my parents gave me were recognized and valued in school.  There was no cultural disconnect or discontinuity.  In addition, I had teachers who cared about me and my success.  Sure, when my friends from high school get together nowadays, like most people recalling the past we remember funny moments, recount instances of petty injustice, or tell stories of daring misdeeds.  The reality was that I was fortunate to have at least one teacher each year who connected with me.  I still remember Mrs. Powers telling me I could be an artist and Miss Carroll complimenting me on a logical argument.   Plus, after school activities engaged me.  From debate team to Glee Club, I was connected to the school.  Although we  didn’t  have a college counselor at my school, I had two parents who talked to me about the higher ed path.  Frequently.  In sum, my schooling was additive.

The world has changed.  In some ways today’s schools are much different from the ones I attended as a child.  The students and families look and sound different from my playmates and neighboring families of the past.  However, many of the teachers and administrators still look like me – white and middle-class.  Most of them are monolingual English speakers.  In urban schools, few of them live in or know the neighborhoods in which they work.  Much of the curriculum is driven by standards and standardized testing.  Multicultural education remains at the level of “food, festivals, and fun” and one-off events like “Multicultural Night” or “Cinco de Mayo” celebrations.  In 1999, Valenzuela introduced the term subtractive schooling to denote the potential resources that are not recognized or valued, indeed are subtracted from Latino children’s educational experiences.  These resources include language, culture, and what Moll terms familial and cultural “funds of knowledge“. Perhaps as a result, alarming numbers of Latino youth drop out of school and few go on to higher education.

Life history research encompasses not only the studied but the student.  Indeed, most qualitative researchers include a description of their own identity to provide context and to enhance the validity of a study.  Cole and Knowles  argue that all social science research, but especially qualitative research, is autobiographical in nature.  In other words, just as we read a great novel to find bits and pieces of ourselves in the characters, so too do we study other people’s lives in order to understand our own.   Documenting some of my own life history make me realize that although I worked hard, a fortunate and somewhat accidental set of circumstances provided an invisible wind at my back  and propelled me towards educational success.


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