C is for Culturally Immersive

Last Friday while cooking for Shabbat, I listened to a podcast episode called A is for Afrocentric, which followed the deliberations of Eric (the podcast host)  and his wife, Carla, figuring out where to send their daughter to nursery school.  Carla was interested in an Afrocentric school, which integrates African culture and history into all aspects of the curriculum.  The goal of Afrocentric schooling is to instill within black children a deep sense of pride and confidence in their background and identity. As I chopped up carrots for chicken soup, I listened to Eric run through his hesitations with choosing an Afrocentric school.  I was immediately struck by the similarities with concerns often raised about choosing a Jewish day school. Some of the concerns that Eric shared were:

  • That the school might communicate a singular understanding of how to be black
  • That teaching black culture might take priority over teaching academics-- reading, writing, and arithmetic
  • That the school might encourage culturally-based, rigid gender roles and expectations
  • That teaching black history and culture can be very complicated and burdensome for young children

Eric takes a deep dive into researching, creating spreadsheets of pros and cons, speaking with an educational psychologist, and a friend who attended an Afrocentric school.  Still, he and Carla feel stuck in their deliberations, and decide to visit the local Afrocentric school to gain some first-hand perspective.   At the school, they are enchanted by the artwork they see on the walls: drawings of Malcolm X’s glasses in celebration of his birthday, and the realization that this school doesn’t do black history month… black history is taught the entire year.  They learn about how history and culture are integrated into academics, and all of the activities their daughter could participate in: Swahili, African drumming, African dance, as well as yoga and gardening.  They discover that the classrooms are named for African tribes, a concrete example of the school’s philosophy that black history doesn’t begin with slavery.  Eric’s concerns seem to fall away.  His initial fear about the school helping his daughter construct her black identity transformed into a sense of comfort when he realized he could trust this school to share that important role. Spoiler alert: they choose the Afrocentric school. I was unexpectedly moved to hear someone from a different walk of life making the case for culturally immersive schooling.  Even more so, I was moved to hear it on The Nod, a podcast about black culture, whose audience, I would venture to guess, is primarily liberal, young adults like myself.  I say this because choosing Jewish day school can often feel counter-cultural.  My demographic of socially liberal millennials value diversity and public education, especially at the current political moment when it feels like those values are under direct threat.  Choosing to send your child to a (relatively) homogeneous private school that by design limits the amount of diversity they will be exposed to may seem at odds with those values. That’s why listening to Eric talk about Afrocentric schooling was so refreshing.  There are of course many important and significant differences between Jewish and black communities, which influence the design and goals of their schools, and perhaps how the schools are perceived.  And yet, the core belief that undergirds them remains the same-- that learning in an environment that is steeped in culture, history and values provides children with an unparalleled sense of confidence in their identity and community.  Taking this a step further, I believe that young people who are rooted, knowledgeable, and confident in their identities are uniquely poised to contribute to the vibrant and diverse fabric of society.  I think it’s time to think about Jewish day schools, Afrocentric schools, and all culturally immersive schools as playing a critical role in developing the next generation of grounded, empowered, and compassionate learners and citizens.