March 6, 2007

Let's read about the Kaplan story in a better newspaper.

After criticizing the Capital Times in that last post, let me call attention to the far superior coverage of the Kaplan story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Before Kaplan's letter [PDF] became available, Megan Twohey wrote a solid article, which I discussed here. Here's her current article. Exerpt:
Leonard Kaplan, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor under attack for comments he made about the Hmong, defended himself in a detailed letter to his dean Monday, saying the allegations against him "do not correctly reflect the statements I did make or my purpose in making them."...

The controversy stems from a Feb. 15 class on legal process attended by about 15 students.

[Names deleted], who were in the class, and [name deleted], who was not, filed a complaint with Kenneth Davis, the dean of the law school, accusing Kaplan of creating "a racially hostile learning environment by promoting racial stereotypes and misinformation about the Hmong community, their cultural practices and their history."...

Kaplan said he was discussing how governments fail to respond to poverty and the challenges of a multicultural society. He made the case that the difficulties many Hmong encountered upon their arrival in this country were aggravated by the government's failure to accommodate them....

He said he referred to Hmong men as "warriors" to express the status they held in Southeast Asia, not to suggest any inherent violent tendencies.

"I noted that many of the first generation of Hmong men died prematurely and that a possible explanation is that some Hmong suffered from a loss of meaning as a result of their changed status in the U.S."

"I never said, and I never implied, that Hmong women were better off with Hmong men dead," Kaplan said.
Read the whole thing. It's an excellent account.

And here is an opinion piece published in the MJS, written by Marc Kornblatt, a Madison resident (who wrote this before the Kaplan response came out):
The controversy swirling around a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and his Hmong students makes me think of the new TV show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" If someone had managed to record the professor's class, the producers could play the video on their program and a contestant could respond to the following:

What did the professor say? What was the professor's point? What does the professor believe? You have until the next commercial to answer.

Forgive me if I hurt anyone's feelings, but I'm trying to make a point about interpretation and analysis. Neither a lawyer nor a psychologist, but a former journalist who now teaches fifth grade, I work at a Madison school where as many as 70% of the students are poor and the majority are of color....

To form an intelligent opinion, let alone pass judgment, one needs to hear all sides. That's what I tell my fifth-graders....

That's because many people with more money who don't look or talk like you assume you're ignorant, lazy and/or dangerous. So you have to work hard to break the stereotypes to succeed. But you still might not make it because our country's playing field for whites and people of color is not level.

Do I believe the stereotypes? No. Do I talk about them and teach my students how to analyze them? That's my job.

It's tough stuff for a fifth-grader, but so far no one has complained to me. (And believe me, my students know how to complain.) None of their parents has taken me to task yet, either, but someday one might. I can imagine a child misinterpreting me and telling his or her parents that I'm a racist.
Teachers -- and administrators -- need to demand that students think. This is an excellent opinion piece, but I do want to take one step back from what Kornblatt says, because I wince at the use of the word "smart" here. Much as I love pop culture references, I don't think the problem is that our students aren't smart.

The problem lies with those who purport to be teachers who hear that students are unhappy and respond to those feelings instead of demanding that students observe clearly and analyze a situation accurately and with a proper concern for the truth. The question isn't are the students smart, but do the teachers teach.

NOTE: I've deleted the student names that originally appeared here. I didn't like using the students' names, and only had them because they were in the newspaper article I was commenting on. Obviously, the names are still available in the linked newspaper articles.

7 comments:

MadisonMan said...

I'm quite sure the students in Kaplan's class this semester have learned a boatload. It might not have been on the syllabus, but oh how they've learned. Whether or not they're now thinking more critically -- well, only time will tell.

peter hoh said...

Nice tack.

Richard Dolan said...

Two things jumped out at me. Kornblatt says:

"That's because many people with more money who don't look or talk like you assume you're ignorant, lazy and/or dangerous."

"Do I believe the stereotypes? No."

Well, based on the first quote, it appears that he believes in some stereotypes, but -- of course -- only the "good" ones.

Ann says that the issue here is not whether the kids are smart, but whether the teachers teach -- specifically whether the teachers teach the "students [to] observe clearly and analyze a situation accurately and with a proper concern for the truth." I agree.

To cut through the cant, Kornblatt seems to be saying that Wisconsin is just overloaded with "many [white guys] with more money who don't look or talk like" the kids of color he's teaching, and who instinctively assume that those kids are "ignorant, lazy and/or dangerous." Never having been to Wisconsin, I can't say he's wrong. But I'd be very slow to credit that view of things.

Kornblatt's world doesn't sound like any place I've lived. I've never run into these hordes of white guys who harbor the ingrained racist views Kornblatt is conjuring up; and grade school seems a bit early to be training these kids to focus on their unfolding life stories as just another episode of downtrodden-victim-as-hero stuff.

It's not that there aren't racists and all manner of other creeps to be found in Wisconsin (and Brooklyn). These kids may well be treated unfairly (or worse) because of that at some point; some may have already run into that by the time they've gotten to fifth grade. But it's an astoundingly false picture of Brooklyn (and, I would bet, Wisconsin as well) to suggest that the ugly racist stereotype that Kornblatt is conjuring here is at all fairly reflective of the larger society, or that the many problems these kids are likely to face in life are rooted in racism intended only to hold them back.

Mike said...

Richard has an excellent point. Why the need to gussy up an important lesson; "you have to work hard succeed" with the gratuitous; "because racists are out to get you"? Fact of the matter is, most people have to work hard to succeed.

Pogo said...

According to the article: "The offended students have demanded that Kaplan issue a public apology. They also want the law school to fund a Hmong cultural series and implement a "critical race theory and law" program."

An excruciating shakedown by PC activists, and the death of common sense.

As the Libby conviction demonstrates, the law is no longer about anything other than counting coup.
Whoops.

dearieme said...

Kaplan refers to second generation immigrants driven to crime by economic necessity. A lefty then? Hoist by his own petard?

William Tyroler said...

Kornblatt also had this to say about his teaching plan:

"The controversy made me think of my own classroom, where I baldly talk about the facts of life in the United States. I tell my students that if you are poor and have non-white skin, you have less of a chance of living the American dream than your Caucasian peers."

Critical thinking is one thing, propagandizing quite another. These are 5th graders he's indoctrinating.