THE ISSUE that makes education-minded people see red and gnash their teeth these days is "-centrism." You thought it would be the swinishness of college sports programs, didn't you?
If you're a behind-the-times kind of person, you probably thought it would be college graduates not knowing which country Abraham Lincoln was president of.
You were wrong. -Centrism is where the heat is. There are many varieties of -centrism. Among people who like to shout at each other, the most popular are ethnocentrism, Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism.
Yes, these are the kind of words that affect the brain like chloroform, but ours is an age when people talk like the boilerplate in sociology textbooks.
This enables them to talk a long time while trying to think of something to say. Nevertheless, dull though it sounds, -centrism has the power to make blood boil.
This is because it's about how education should make people feel good. It assumes that education has a duty to affect people's feelings in a positive way. Let's try to illustrate:
Who do you think discovered America? If you say Columbus, it's because you had a Eurocentric education. If you say Leif Ericsson, you're still from the Eurocentric school, but we are seeing obvious signs of ethnocentrism. Your education may have been Nordocentric, possibly even Norse-ocentric.
It doesn't matter here. Under -centrism theory, having America discovered by either Ericsson or Columbus makes Americans of white European background feel good about themselves.
Recently, some Americans of African background have been saying that America was actually discovered by unknown Africans who crossed the Atlantic ages ahead of the two usual European suspects.
Eurocentric education's failure to teach the African discovery is said to be typical of a white racism that suffuses and poisons Eurocentric education. (You can see how -centrism could bring people to a boil.) In short, we are now seeing pressure for a more Afrocentric education.
The aim is to help Americans of black African background feel just as good about themselves as Americans of white European background feel when the discovery is discussed.
Where does this leave American Indians? Since they were here before either Africans or Europeans, they surely deserve all the credit for the discovery.
Wouldn't American Indians feel much, much better about themselves if Leif and Columbus were dropped from the curriculum, the early African discoverers put aside, and the discovery properly credited to unknown Indians?
Of course they would, and Indians have pressed the point by observing that since they are not a people of the East Indies and Asian subcontinent -- which is to say, Indians -- they prefer to be called "Native Americans."
In pressing for change in the dominant Eurocentric vocabulary, these longtime Americans have taken the first step toward demanding a Native-Americocentric education.
Unforeseen problems can result from mounting evidence that Native Americans descend from prehistoric Siberians who discovered the ancient New World by walking over to Alaska. It's entirely possible, such is the fierceness for control of education's powerful bias, that Americans of Siberian background will demand a more Russocentric education.
The battle for control of the schoolhouse is not confined to racial and ethnic competitors, of course. Women want a more feminocentric syllabus exalting the likes of Queen Boadicea and Emily Dickinson. Homosexuals are having too tough a time right now to fling themselves with gusto into the fray. Still, they have made it clear in the past that they want American education to become gayocentric enough to start hauling more of civilization's greatest stars out of the closet.
Nor should we overlook the religious groups ever busy censoring textbooks and cleansing literature departments of writers who shouldn't be allowed to walk the streets with decent people. This group wants education to be upliftocentric.
What is depressing about these conflicts over -centrism is the disputants' indifference to the idea that education involves training people to think clearly. Instead, they treat education as a propaganda system to be manipulated for transient social or political purposes. Which is to say, with contempt.