A Critical Look At Alain Locke’s Approach to Transformative Education

Alain Locke brought up many issues with the education system at the time of the publications of his ideas of and approach to transformative education. Inequality is institutionalized and education is a major structure in our society. Locke’s ideas and approach to restructuring education has both strengths and problematic features. Though his thoughts were published in the 1950’s they still apply today.

Locke’s goal to decentralize education away from white-centric values is a major strength with addressing the cultural crisis. To be equal to one other people must equally understand and respect different value sets across cultures. When an educational system is built off of a value set from the majority race or ethnic group socialization promotes those values to be ideal and superior. Being socialized to believe that the values of the white majority is superior to that of others builds a foundation of white superiority. Locke focuses on the importance of cultural pluralism. His friend Horace Kallen stated,

[cultural pluralism] is intended to signify an endeavor toward friendship by people who are different from each other but who, as different, hold themselves equal to each other.

This idea of friendship and understanding is a basis of the restructuring of the education system since it reinforces the belief that differences should not be viewed as bad or wrong but merely differences.

Another strength to Locke’s approach is his method of identifying what is dogmatic and value based information and how to relate them to functional aspects of society and historic society. His approach includes looking at things objectively and relating them to functional aspects to gain understanding of why they exist and how they are adapted to their backgrounds. This method of contextualization of values helps those who do not have the same lived experiences and histories understand and have more respect for the functionality of these values. Breaking down these values in this way also opens up critical analysis which by followed Locke’s third principal of critical relatism can be used to “…counteract value dogmatism based on regarding them as universals good and true for all times and places.” Implementing this rejection of majority value dogmatism as universal values opens up a system of critical thinking that is inclusive of minority value sets and thought.

One thing I find to be problematic is how extensive this approach seems. The reach of influence of dogmatic values on educational resources, sciences and information runs very deep. I am concerned with how biased sciences and historic accounts which on the surface may seem factual and not value based could affect how functions of values are described. There are many layers to this and while the approach seems like a good start to bring about self-reflection and critical thinking it does not address some of the dogmatism that has been more deeply integrated.

A second issue I find to be problematic is that state education is still filtered and mediated and I do not see anything implemented that promotes people to seek out further education and understandings of cultures. Classroom hours are limited so introduction to other cultures and their values are limited. Which cultures or other minority groups will make the cut? Curry states that Mark Cohen reminds us that many still think that there are only three races: Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid. This still holds today, though the terminology may have changed. People need to not only learn to understand cultures that are presented to them in a formal educational environment. They need to learn to supplement their education by seeking out the voices of those from varying cultures in order to not think in terms of pan-values across massive groups such as the three previously states races.

These ideas are still applicable today. History in the United States is still presented as mainly white history. The histories of people and cultures that are not white are many times presented as their history in relation to white people. White American history is “American History” while history focusing on other groups is given an identifier such as “Black History” or “Native American Studies”. Non-white cultures are still presented as exotic, differing from a norm and “other”. The extent of normalizing white culture is so deep that white Americans many times do not feel that they have a culture and thus appropriate and commoditize the cultures of other groups. Differences in cultures within the U.S. are still used as jokes and are cited as reasons for xenophobic beliefs.

Overall Locke’s approach is still valuable and something that should be worked into our education system. I believe it needs to be built upon. The importance of recognizing and being critical of dogmatic values of majority groups should be taught. Equality should be taught and socialized in a way that is not based on how one conforms to one arbitrary set of cultural values. I believe that a continuous approach to respectfully seek out and learn about other cultures needs to be taught in addition to the limited lessons one can gain from formal education.

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