The curriculum for education students at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is undergoing a makeover to improve the content taught to future teachers. One task group’s suggestion that students learn "cultural competency" has become controversial locally and nationally, even drawing criticism from Bill O’Reilly.
The recommendation that caught O’Reilly’s attention came from the Race, Culture, Class and Gender Task Group, one of seven groups of the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative. According to the task group’s report, "cultural competency" will teach students cultural empathy, intercultural sensitivity, the recognition that some groups are historically and socially disadvantaged in school systems and an understanding that the way American history is taught often hides and distorts historical reality. Recommended concepts include white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, the myth of meritocracy and institutionalized racism.
To some, like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), this looks like indoctrination. They sent a letter to the President of the University arguing that the intentions of the curriculum "violate the freedom of conscience of the university’s students" and are "a severe affront to liberty and a disservice to the very ideal of a liberating education."
But FIRE has purposely taken the proposal out of context, arguing that "the result will be political and ideological screening of applicants, remedial re-education for those with the ‘wrong’ views and values, and withholding of degrees from those upon whom the university’s political reeducation efforts proved ineffective," none of which is mentioned in the task group’s proposal and all of which are denied by Steve Baker, communications director of the University’s College of Education and Human Development.
People have misunderstood and blown it all out of proportion, Baker said, "the emphasis is not on a litmus test of political ideology."
After ignoring the propaganda of FIRE and getting past certain contentious key phrases in the task group’s report, it’s clear that the functional goal of the proposal is to teach students how to "deal effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds and understanding" and how to "act appropriately in cross-cultural situations." Not such a crazy notion.
While FIRE calls the curriculum an "illiberal view of education," the reality is that universities need to provide a setting where different ideas and values are openly discussed and debated. Universities should expose students to a variety of opinions, including controversial ones, while teaching them how to analytically reach their own conclusions. At the very least, that is what cultural competency curriculum would do rather than brainwash students into accepting what they’re taught, as the critics seem to fear.
The University of Minnesota isn’t the first to propose cultural competency curriculum. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education requires a standard of diversity, which teaches students the knowledge and skills to help all students learn with an expectation that teachers will interact with a diverse group of students and faculty members. Over 500 institutions are currently accredited with these standards.