Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring

Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring

Eder, Donna

Book Review

Donna Eder

Indiana University

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Valenzuela offers a powerful and important addition to the literature on multi-cultural secondary schooling. Her approach to ethnography is one that reveals, rather than masks, the many complexities surrounding ethnicity. In the process of showing the complex nature of school experiences of students with Mexican descent, she points to two major problems in American schooling: the lack of authentic caring and the lack of respect for Mexican culture. In addition, she provides an excellent example of an engaged, caring researcher for those seeking new models for conducting ethnographic research.

In her three-year ethnographic study of a Houston school (which she refers to as Sequin High School), Valenzuela begins revealing the complex experiences of students of Mexican descent by comparing the experiences of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. Similar to the results of previous research, the immigrants she studied have higher levels of achievement than Mexican Americans do. Her in-depth interviews and participant observation with both groups of students offer rich explanations for this difference in achievement. Not only do immigrants have considerable support from peers and family to motivate their studies, they are grateful to have the opportunity to attend high school since public schooling ends at sixth grade in Mexico. While these students have criticisms of American schools, their sense of gratitude and privilege tend to mute those criticisms as well as motivate their achievements.

For both groups of students, the main criticisms of American schools revolve around the lack of authentic caring by teachers and the lack of respect given to Mexican culture. The first complaint stems from the fact that to Mexicans, education is a concept that includes competence in the social world based on respect for others, caring, and moral responsibility, as well as academic training. In Mexico, teachers told students that they all had a responsibility for each other’s well being and encouraged them to work together in groups and be active participants in the learning process. In contrast, the focus in most American schools is on ideas and content and there is only a limited concern with students’ subjective reality. Whether or not students had directly experienced Mexican schooling with its focus on authentic caring, most sense a lack of this type of caring in American schools. In Sequin, only 19% of the faculty are Latino, and the white faculty in particular are viewed by the almost entirely Latin student population as being “cold and withdrawn,” lacking social competence in a Latino sense.

The other main criticism concerns the dismissal of Mexican culture by faculty and administrators. Even though immigrant students perform better academically, they are not valued by the school for their knowledge of Mexican language and culture. ESL (English as a Second Language) students are considered “limited English proficient” not “Spanish dominant,” and fluency in Spanish is seen as a barrier rather than an asset. Valenzuela emphasizes that as long as the ESL program is viewed as inferior, so are Mexican immigrants and the Spanish language. This creates a system of cultural tracking alongside the system of academic tracking.

The student body became divided between immigrants and Mexican Americans due to the school’s attitude toward Mexican culture as well as larger societal forces. Because the school values English over Spanish, many Mexican-American students lack proficiency in Spanish. This leads many Mexican Americans to avoid speaking Spanish, which in turn causes some of them to be viewed as snobbish or even “anti-Mexican.” At the same time, many Mexican Americans are labeled with negative-terms such as gringa by relatives and peers which angers them and further heightens the tension within the student body. Some of the Mexican Americans have their own negative views of immigrants based on media and relations of dominance within their homes and communities (e.g., employed maids, laborers, etc.).

Despite the strong divisions within the student body there were several events which united the students in their resistance to schooling. Indeed, the extent to which Mexican ethnicity complicates school life for all students of Mexican descent is revealed most clearly in Valenzuela’s discussion of the students’ unity during a celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Unlike some other immigrants to the United States who view the United States as a haven from oppression in their native land, both Mexican Americans and immigrants view the United States as a country that has historically oppressed Mexico (most notably by taking the land which they now live on as well as much of the American Southwest.) It is this shared sense of political oppression that unites the students together and explains the degree of their resistance to American society. At this particular celebration, the students successfully displayed their resistance by waving Mexican flags during the singing of the American national anthem. Afterwards, students spoke to Valenzuela of the history of oppression, saying “Well, it’s no secret that this land once belonged to Mexico,” and of the lack or respect currently given to their culture.

Valenzuela also captures the complexity of the Mexican ethnic experience by showing diversity within the broad divisions of immigrants versus Mexican Americans. In an early chapter of Subtractive Schooling she carefully shows how social capital works to help certain Mexican-American students (as well as helping so many of the immigrant students). One particular group of Mexican Americans was brought together by common membership in Spanish Club as well as by selling pizza during lunchtime. This group had much higher academic motivation and achievement than did most Mexican Americans. She attributes this not only to their positive sense of Mexican language and culture but also to their tight friendship bonds which were initially strengthened as a response to a family crisis by one of the group members. The bonds continued to remain strong and now allow all of the students to draw on each other’s support and the support of each other’s families for academic needs as well as emotional needs.

Other complexities within the broad divisions of ethnicity are revealed later in the book as certain groups of Mexican Americans spoke more openly about their Indian heritages. Even though most Mexicans have Indian descendants, it is rarely spoken of according to Valenzuela. However, in this group, it was an important theme in some of their households and the group members believe that Indian heritage is a stronger marker of being Mexican than is speaking Spanish.

While Valenzuela finds many of the faculty to lack the degree of caring that students with Mexican descent are accustomed to, she does offer several examples of more caring adults. One of the Spanish teachers, for example, has repeatedly pointed out the problems she sees with the school’s current system of “cultural tracking.” She has advocated that the school become truly bilingual, which would require more advanced courses in Spanish as well as a change in attitude toward the Spanish language.

Another teacher who taught both journalism and English courses strives to be open and honest with students, even when the school bureaucracy greatly enhanced the tension level in his freshman English class by causing it to be begin three weeks late. Rather than become defensive in the face of strong student resistance, he accepted Valenzuela’s offer to begin a dialogue with his students regarding their complaints. After receiving her feedback, he went on to continue this dialogue by inviting their criticisms, openly discussing their concerns, and even apologizing to those students which others perceived he had treated negatively.

Of great interest to other ethnographers of schooling will be Valenzeula’s own example of a caring adult researcher. Valenzuela leads class discussions when asked and even offered, as noted above, to lead a heated discussion with a very angry and frustrated freshman English class. Her handling of this and other delicate situations demonstrates a blend of honesty and compassion, showing other ethnographers an excellent model of active involvement in the research setting. The data of the class sessions that she led is analyzed alongside other data in the book, showing that she is subject to her own analysis. Thus, in Subtractive Schooling the researcher is not separate from those she researches, as is so often the case. This is further revealed in the way Valenzuela refers to her own thoughts and feelings throughout the book. For example, when discussing her decision about the type of feedback to provide the freshman English teacher she writes of her own feelings, saying she feared increasing his already heavy emotional burdens, but felt obliged to give him an honest summary of the discussion she had led.

Valenzuela offers many suggestions as to how to improve the schooling experiences for students of Mexican heritage. Among them is a greater focus on caring about students’ welfare, a broadening of training to include social and ethical responsibilities as well as academic knowledge, and encouraging active participation and more group involvement as a way to strengthen relationships in the classroom. She also envisions a truly bilingual program similar to the one discussed by the Spanish teacher in which all students would become fluent in both English and Spanish. Finally, she would like to see more respect and inclusion of Mexican culture throughout the school year.

The strengths of this book are many. Most notably, by providing a multivocal and multifaceted view of the experience of students with Mexican heritage it addresses one of the key problems the author herself notes with our current over-simplified view of ethnicity. In addition, it successfully shows the complex nature of school environments in which administrators are affected by local politics and even the most well meaning teachers are sometimes undermined by bureaucratic practices. Also, the same faculty is shown to be viewed as caring or uncaring, depending in part of the students’ level of academic support from their peers.

Valenzuela also does an excellent job of locating this particular school within its local community and of discussing the historical changes that have taken place in regard to Sequin. What becomes clear from reading this book is that approaches to multicultural teaching may need to be quite specific to certain school communities and ethnic histories. This leads to one of the book’s few weaknesses, in that the author is not as successful at locating her suggestions for changes in multicultural teaching within this particular context. While this school could clearly benefit from a truly bilingual and bicultural approach in that it would help to unify a currently divided student body, this approach might not be as successful in other schools and communities.

The great strength of this book in providing a truly multivocal portrayal of ethnicity led to another weakness, as it sometimes made for tedious reading of detailed accounts of numerous different student groups. This could perhaps have been mitigated by selecting the groups that particularly highlighted key pedagogical issues and then placing some of the remaining detailed discussions within an appendix.

But on the whole, Valenzuela has offered an important book for those interested in the current state of multi-cultural experiences in American schools, and in particular the experiences of students of Mexican descent. Subtractive Schooling greatly increases our understanding of the intricate complexity of ethnicity and schooling practices. At the same time, it provides a model for a more authentically caring approach to ethnography as well as a more authentically caring style of teaching.

Copyright National Association for Bilingual Education Spring 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.