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Cultural diversity and the test of leadership.

Cultural Diversity and the Test of Leadership Item: Last year, the valedictorian of the graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy was Hoang Nhu Tran, a "boat person" who was among the last to get out of Saigon in 1975. He arrived in the United States able to say "Hello" and little else. This fall, after finishing a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, he will take up a scholarship at Harvard Medical School. If you read the papers or look around your classroom, you will know Lt. Tran is not alone in his remarkable level of achievement--merely symbolic, the most newsworthy example of a particular minority that is making the American dream its own.

Item: In California, officials last year predicted that this fall, a majority of all school-age children would be from some minority group (Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian). As often happens, California is the leading edge of a major, national demographic change. We are more and more becoming a nation of minorities.

Item: Sometime in the next century, the life expectancy of a newborn child will hit 100. For the first time in human history, it will become commonplace--the norm--for four generations to know and interact with one another. We have no models for a society constructed on that demographic premise, nor do we yet understand how to construct an intergenerational culture.

Item: A recently published book gives a devastating portrayal of The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press). William Julius Wilson argues that America's cities have become the breeding ground for families and individuals whose "behavior contrasts sharply with that of mainstream America," a socially pathological environment characterized by joblessness, disintegration of the family, and the increasing physical, social, cultural, and economic isolation of the poor.

These items are indicators of massive subterranean shifts in our country and the makeup of our population. They are descriptors of the America in which the new generation of leaders in CEC must operate, and which will shape the agenda they must meet and deal with in the next decade and the next century. They represent both the hope and the dark underside of a swirling mass of issues that travels under the name "cultural diversity."

The Baby Boomers. In the middle of all this is the average CEC member, born sometime between the end of World War II and 1964--a "baby boomer." More than with any other, it is with this generation that I would like to have an evening by the fireside. And if I could, this is what I would want to say to you.

Your generation has begun to succeed mine in positions of responsibility and authority. You are taking over, and you will have to lead. You're lucky. You were shaken loose from the foundations of my generation by the cultural earthquake called the Sixties, by the Vietnam War, the Peace Corps, the civil rights struggles, and yes, even by the "Me Decade." You lived through a social commitment to do good when times were good. And that commitment has shaped you.

Your challenge is the generation right behind you, those who have been born since 1970. And what you may not yet see is that they are more different from you than you are different from us. A big percentage of them are the "video boomers," the kids-becoming-adults whose entire consciousness of self and society has been molded by television, by the easy availability of whatever they wanted, whether money or sex or drugs, by a social ethos which promised and delivered instant gratification.

They are the computer literate, the consumers of every imaginable kind of information; too many of them, too, are adrift in a sea of fact without the compass of knowledge or the anchor of wisdom. They are also those whose sense of context and continuity, of linkages with the past, is conditioned by a culture that has become almost completely present- and future-oriented. They don't look back because no one has taught them they must. Perhaps as we witness the "graying" of America, this young generation will grow in ways not yet envisioned for the video kids.

But whatever patterns emerge, the generation you are called on to serve and lead will be the most culturally diverse in our nation's history. And because so many of your generation had to work so hard to define yourselves against mine, your generation has made precedents that are in continuing danger of being misperceived. "Doing your own thing," for example, does not mean we stop taking responsibility for one another. Achieving group goals need not be a zero-sum game. The drive for minority self-definition, so important to our recent past as a people, has begun transforming that great source of American vitality--the cultural stew of the melting pot--into something more like a layer cake, in which all the elements are--by choice--separate and divided. And as that happens, we lose more than our energy as a people. We lose the future.

The Link. I am convinced that, more than any other, the cultural diversity issue can be the strongest link to the future of our nation and of special education. Indeed, if we do not forge this one, there is scarcely any reason to forge any other. And you must be the ones to do it.

There are many areas in which you will have to bend your efforts. Of course, it is important to work out the issues of cultural diversity in such contexts as assessment, placement, research, student rights, personnel preparation, programming, curriculum, and technical assistance and training. We must address many special populations (e.g., rural, abused/neglected, incarcerated) and issues (e.g., bilingual education, use of aversives). There are overriding concerns of justice, equality, opportunity, and stereotyping. And there are the multitude of strategies for celebrating cultural diversity that can help all of the next generation understand "differences" as a resource for enrichment, and not as a threat. (See the Fall issue of TEC for some very practical suggestions.)

But it has to go beyond these things. In the end, what your generation is called on to do is to strike the creative balance between celebrating the uniqueness of diverse cultures and continuing to create the common culture. That will not happen naturally or by itself. In fact, left to themselves, the energies of cultural diversity are centripetal; they create more layer cakes than melting pots. But it is a new melting pot we need.

That is why I am heartened when I read about Hoang Nhu Tran or watch the fluid artistry of Black Olympic ice skater, Debi Thomas. They are adding flavor and nourishment to the melting pot; or, to use a more high-tech metaphor, they are "putting power back into the grid." The next generation of leadership in CEC will need every Hoang and Debi--yellow, black, brown, white, and red--they can find. And they will need you, too, to help them find their place and make their contribution.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Greer, Jeptha V.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:column
Date:Nov 1, 1988
Previous Article:Families in peril: an agenda for social change.
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