Teaching Students They Are Not At The Center Of The Universe

Jack Levin and Wilfred Holton
Northeastern University, 1997

Segregation is a fact of life on college campuses around the country. Visit a crowded cafeteria at almost any college or university, even the most diverse, and you will see students of a ìfeatherî sitting and eating together–Whites with Whites, Blacks with Blacks, Latinos with Latinos, and Asians with Asians. Even worse, when college students from diverse backgrounds occasionally interact, they often do so under hostile conditions. A recent survey of 550 colleges conducted by U.S. News and World Report found that, over a one-year period, 71 percent of the campuses in the United States had at least one hate incident involving a studentís race or religion.

Of course, itís not just college students who opt for spending quality time with their own kind. Americans of all ages and backgrounds tend to separate themselves by race and religion in almost every aspect of daily life–so much so that an aerial photo of Greater Boston could easily serve as an ethnic and racial map of the metropolitan area.

It is not surprising that our beliefs about other human beings are often inaccurate, based more on stereotype than reality. A person who grows up in Boston may come to believe that 60 percent of all Americans are Catholic because that is what she sees on her street, at her workplace, and in school. Similarly, someone raised in Washington D.C. may be convinced that 70 percent of all Americans are Black; a New Yorker might swear that half of all Americans are Jewish.

Almost inevitably, therefore, we learn to view the world from our own biased and limited slice of experience. We tend to apply what we see everyday to what we don’t see everyday. In the process, we are likely to gain a distorted perception of reality.

Last fall, we teamed up to teach an experimental sociology course that took teams of undergraduate students out of the traditional classroom to provide service to the local community. The emphasis of the course was on changing students, not changing the neighbors. Our objective was to broaden students’ perspectives–to give them an opportunity to interact with people of different races, ethnicities, or religions; and to do so in a spirit of cooperation, civility, and good will. In short, we hoped to challenge and clarify our studentsí views of social reality, with the objective of preparing them to live in an increasingly diverse world.

One of the important functions of formal education is to broaden our personal experience, to serve as an agent of socialization with aspects of life that we might otherwise never experience first-hand. And this is precisely why a formal course which combines classroom instruction with first-hand involvement in the life of the community makes so much sense, at least theoretically.

Based on the quality of their personal essays and academic transcripts, seventeen undergraduate students were selected to participate in our course. The majority was White, but Black, Asian, and Latino students were represented as well. Every week, each student in the course performed five hours of community service and then met together as a class for two hours to discuss issues related to the way that groups interact. Our text was Ruth Sidelís Battling Bias, an analysis of diversity on campus. In addition, students wrote logs summarizing their community service experiences for the week and a more inclusive term paper at the end of the quarter. Our final class meeting together consisted of oral team presentations in which students summarized their community experiences and reflected on how those experiences had changed their own feelings and thinking about diversity.

The range of student reactions was as broad and varied as their agency placements. Some reported initially feeling out of place when exposed to an unfamiliar situation in which they were, for the first time ever, the ìracial minority.î For example, Sally, a White student from a middle-class Boston suburb, helped with peer-mediated conflict resolution with girls at a local high school where most of the young people were either Black or Latino. At first, she regarded the students as ìnameless girls who frightened me in the hallways.î About one girl who had gotten into a fist fight, Sally later remarked, ìDuring our first meeting, I didnít think she wanted me in the room. Now, six weeks later, she calls me her ëbig sisí and confides in me.î Sally reports that her experience caused her “to look at people in a very different light” and to be “more sensitive to issues of racial, class and social disputes.î As a result, she has decided to continue working at the school for the entire year and is applying to graduate school to study juvenile crime.

Other students in our course discovered unexpected civility among the community members they served. Richard, a young man from upstate New York, conducted empathy training as part of a conflict resolution program with racially diverse first-graders at an elementary school near Chinatown. Richardís experience changed his perspective. ìPerhaps the biggest thing I noticed in working with these kids was just how little race differences matter to them,î Richard suggested. ìIt is not that they don’t understand that other people have different skin colors than they do, it’s that they don’t care. It made it so obvious to me that racial hatred is a learned thing.

Some of our students learned a good deal from being part of a project team whose members were diverse. For example, Marjorie, a bi-racial student who grew up in a part of Maine where there was only a tiny Jewish population had been exposed to many anti-Jewish stereotypes. But through her partnership in a Cambridge agency with a Jewish woman from New York, she felt comfortable enough to ask her about her religion. Toward the end of the course, Marjorie remarked, “Now that I possess a better understanding of the Jewish faith and background, I am less likely to believe the stereotypes employed to discredit Jewish individuals.

However, not every student left the course with an increased sense of optimism or tolerance. Some were stunned by the depth and pervasiveness of the problems confronting members of the community, especially those who are impoverished. Jamie, a student who worked with battered women at a local hospital emergency room explained that she was ìoverwhelmed by the difficulty in ever making wide, far-reaching gains combating this huge problem, yet I am left wanting to help more. It was amazing for me to see how common domestic violence is…I was also struck, however, by the strength some women possessed in surviving tremendous difficulties. It is a shame their strength is wasted on situations they shouldnít have to face.

Because they have grown up shielded from those who are different, many young people lack the skills necessary for good citizenship, tolerance, civility and humanitarianism. They need to be made aware of the existence of poverty and homelessness, flaws in the criminal justice system, prejudice and discrimination, and their own mortality. Most of all, college students need to learn that they are not at the center of the universe. As one of our students concluded after spending ten weeks working with Boston teenagers, ìThe greatest content of learning in this course was about myself. I was forced to explore my own prejudices and those of others like me.

The range of placements was impressive. One team of students assisted the Cambridge Multi-Cultural Arts Center to publicize its panel series on racism; another team was trained by Joey Fournier Services to conduct empathy training with elementary school students at the Josiah Quincy school in Chinatown and the Blackstone School in the South End; two class members assigned with peer-mediated conflict resolution with students at Madison Park High School in Roxbury; and two more worked through the Jewish Vocational Service to prepare immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the job market in their host country. One team worked with housing issues at Project Hope in Dorchester; another investigated domestic violence cases in the emergency room at Boston City Hospital.

This kind of preparation is especially important because young people apparently are not getting it elsewhere.

Prepared for The Boston Globe, March 9, 1997.

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