People who need people

April 05, 1997|By Hal Piper

A WHILE BACK, a news story about the growing popularity of home-schooling quoted a woman who wanted her children to learn in a ''homogeneous'' environment. We defenders of public education snorted. Americans are, on the whole, rather more hetero- than homogeneous, and public education gives children a chance to start dealing with that fact.

The principle was laid down in negative fashion in the musical ''South Pacific'': ''You've got to be taught before it's too late, before you are six, or seven, or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.'' We like to hope that public education can make it work the other way, too -- that children can be taught to accept ''people whose eyes are oddly made, or people whose skin is a different shade.''

But maybe it's time to admit defeat. This suburban home-schooler is just taking her place on the ethnic bandwagon.

A couple of years ago I visited a Buddhist temple in China. Near the exit was a souvenir stand whose feature attraction was a life-size cardboard cutout of Colonel Sanders. Tourists -- Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese -- were snapping photos of each other grinning with the fried-chicken tycoon. At such moments, one thinks that the world truly is evolving toward a single, consumerist, schlock culture.

But just as Isaac Newton taught us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so global homogenization also breeds global fragmentation. Ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, in the Middle East and Africa and Northern Ireland are obvious examples. But many -- most -- of the people who are trying to hold on to ''homogeneous'' culture are perfectly peaceful about it. For example, the move to promote ''Afro-centric'' education in schools where large numbers of students are black.

A friend spent St. Patrick's Day evening with Irish-Americans. The conversation, he reports, was about preserving and reinterpreting the Irish-American experience.

When my son was a freshman in college, he naively tried to join the ''Caribbean Club,'' because he had been to Barbados and liked it and wanted to learn more about the Caribbean. He got a chilly reception; only authentic Caribbeans, it seems, are allowed to celebrate Caribbean culture.

"Too Jewish?"

This month an exhibition called ''Too Jewish?'' will open at a shopping center in Owings Mills. The germ of the idea for this show, writes Norman L. Kleeblatt, who organized it for the Jewish Museum in New York, came from a series of paintings a friend had done. They were so in-your-face Jewish that even the artist, Archie Rand, called them ''too Jewish'' -- not suitable for public exhibition; he had done them only for his private exploration.

That got Mr. Kleeblatt to thinking: What do we mean, ''too Jewish?'' What does it mean to be Jewish in a pluralistic society?

This, I suppose, is ''ethnic regeneration,'' focusing on the upbuilding of the group, an altogether healthier phenomenon than ''ethnic cleansing,'' which requires the rejection of out-group influence. If everyone else is doing it, it shouldn't be surprising that suburban home-schoolers want to defend their culture, too.

A monocultural world would be pretty boring, but apparently we can stop worrying about that happening. The world will remain -- as it should -- a zesty, textured, friction-filled place.

Still, as Americans, we should ponder the importance of the public school as a venue for the common education of all Americans. For unless a shared vision of America binds us together, we will know each other only as ''people whose eyes are oddly made, . . . people our relatives hate.''

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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