Tory Mathieson: The Critical Role of Culture and Community

The final assignment for SOC419 is an essay detailing a reform measure that could be taken to respond to the crisis in American education. The following is a student recommendation for public education policy. 

The United States is a country that is not only made-up of many different cultures, but furthermore is built upon an ethos of cultural acceptance and inclusivity. Additionally, the United States accepts education as a great equalizer and the truest institution of equal opportunity in the United States. However, when two of the United States’ foundational notions collide – appreciating and acknowledging different culture and a fair educational system – there is a lack of cohesion and implementation. Given that 42% of students enrolled in public school are minority students (Dillon) who arrive at school with a variety of cultural backgrounds, the time has come to enact changes in the way in which culture is approached in the United States school system.

I propose that culture and community be taken into account when designing school curriculum and teaching students. By drawing upon Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Program, Tara Yosso’s interpretation of Critical Race Theory, and Freirean principles of critical consciousness and liberation, I hope to show how the education system can start to revolutionize by focusing on two main areas:

  1. Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Teaching Practices
  2. Community Involvement and Responsiveness

An exciting example of cultural relevancy and community involvement is Tucson’s controversial Mexican American Studies program. Sean Arce and his coworkers created a program to “help students enhance their level of critical, racial, cultural, historical, and social conscious through a curriculum that meets states standards that affords students the opportunity to develop a more sophisticated critical analysis” (Romero, 218). This program utilizes the Freirean principle of critical consciousness in that students must understand how their culture is perceived educationally and historically. The six elements of this program are: the nurturing and blossoming intellectualism, utilizing the classroom as an environment in which to mix ones home/neighborhood and the school institution, students as creators of knowledge, a focus on collective and individual agency, organic intellectualism, and the importance of academic and personal transformations (Romero).

Some of the most poignant aspects of these six elements are the idea of counter-stories, student agency and power, and community involvement. Counter-stories are the stories that are not present in mainstream textbooks, stories that counter the majoritarian story. Validating and honoring the students’ family and community stories is a “liberatory moment” (Romero, 223). As Freire argues: acknowledging and critically exploring counter stories is “the greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves…”(Freire).

Students who take part in the Mexican American Studies program are able to see themselves in the curriculum and furthermore, contribute to the curriculum. The MAS program supports the Deweyian principles of dialogue and experience-based learning and thus, the students are able to be agents in their scholarship (Romero). In fact, in the program’s first year the students played a critical role in developing the program (Arce).

Lastly, the MAS program also views classrooms as the convergence of the neighborhood and the institution. As Romero, Arce, and Cammarota note: “the pedagogy is grounded in the tri-dimensionalized reality of (the) students, (the) parents, (the) communities and (the) educators” (Romero, 227).

Beyond extraordinary praise for the program from students and parents, the individuals enrolled in the MAS program were outperforming their peers. In 2010, MAS students were reading at a 44% rate (versus 34%) and writing at a 42% rate (versus 32%). Furthermore, in 2010 93.6% of all MAS students graduated (versus 82.7% of their peers). At a time when the achievement gap is rapidly expanding, this program, which was shutdown, hopefully temporarily, should act as a model for other schools and communities (Save Ethnic Studies Handout).

Tara Yosso agrees with Arce and Romero stating that Critical Race Theory (CRT) should inform educators and policy makers and that Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital must be redefined to move from a theory of cultural deprivation to one of cultural wealth. CRP is “a framework that can be used to theorize, examine and challenge the ways race and racism implicitly and explicitly impact on social structures, practices and discourses” (Yosso, 70). Furthermore, Yosso argues that racialized assumptions such as “minority students do not have the “proper” cultural knowledge and skills” or “parents of minority students do not value or support their child’s education” are detrimental to the education of minority students. As Paulo Freire notes, “racialized assumptions about communities of color often leads schools to default to the banking method of education” (Yosso, 75), whereby students are not active participants in their own learning.  False assumptions and overgeneralizations are dangers to schools, communities, families, and students.

Like Arce and the Mexican-American Studies program, Yosso challenges the education system to take into account the fact that white upper-class standards are not the norm and should not be imposed upon all students (Yosso). She furthermore argues that “community cultural wealth” must be valued more. “Community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression” (Yosso, 77). Six forms of capital categorize this “community cultural wealth”: aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistant. While not necessarily upper class, white norms, the ability to speak two languages, the ability to navigate an institution that may differ from ones home community, and the ability to hold fast to ones hopes and dreams in the face of oppression are extraordinarily valuable skills.

Arce, Romero, Yosso, and Freire suggest the importance of considering culturally based factors in studying educational outcomes among ethnic minority students.  While no instantaneous steps can be taken to institutionally fuse students’ culture and home life with their school institutions, on a more district-based levels schools can encourage culturally-relevant assignments, field trips, and host teacher-training days for teachers to learn more about culture, diversity, and inclusion. Additionally, on the school-level or district-level, schools can make community-involvement more attainable by offering many ways for community members to be involved (PTA, library-assistant, etc.) with varying degrees of time commitments. Furthermore, within communities more empowered, charismatic leaders, like Sean Arce must be given more responsibility and ability to enact programs such as the Mexican-American Studies program and federal funding should be allocated thusly. Even incorporating a day of diversity and inclusion on ever school campus would have an immense impact and would allow all students to feel that they had agency in their schooling and that their culture was important to their education system.

Educational change must move from theory to practice – steps, even if they are small, are significant and must be taken. Only by integrating culture and community into the education system will progressive, critical, fair education be realized.

As Paulo Freire states:

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Freire)

What kind of education do we, as a country, want for our youth?


Arce, Sean 11/16/12. Discussion at Wesleyan University.

Dillon, Sam. 2007. US Data show rapid minority growth in School Rolls.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Romero, Augustine, Arce, Sean, and Cammarota, Julio. A Barrio pedagogy: identity, intellectualism, activism, and academic achievement through the evolution of critically compassionate intellectualism. Race, Ethnicity and Education; vol 12, no.2, July 2009, 217-233.

Save Ethnic Studies Handout.

Yosso, Tara. 2006. Who’s culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education; vol. 8, no. 1, March 2005, pp 69-91



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