Codes of Behavior
In 1993, my family moved to France. I wasn’t too worried about the move because I had already changed schools many times, and everyone told me that I made friends quickly and easily. My nine-year-old psyche had learned the rules for making friends in America: exchange names, agree and find common ground, then invite them over.
I was very surprised when the same formula didn’t work in France. The code for social power has different rules in France. People who always agree and look for common ground are seen as weak, dependent and uninteresting. In order to make a friend in France, you don’t give your name first or find a common interest, you talk about an idea, preferably one on which the two interlocutors have differing opinions. Once you show your independent thinking, then an exchange of names takes place.
It took me some time to adjust to this change of rules; no one ever told me that the code of societal power was different in France, nor how it was different. I had to figure it out blindly.
Having lived in many places while I was growing up, I assumed when I took my first job in a public school in a challenging neighborhood, that I would be able to “fit in.” However, I did not realize the importance of a secret I didn’t know I knew until this year: the code of power in American society.
From day one, I wondered what the purpose of the public school system ought to be. What is it that we really need students to know, understand, and be able to do upon exiting the public school system? In pursuit of answering this question, I have identified some problems.
- Problem #1: How authority is attained and communicated
- Problem #2: Teaching critical thinking and problem solving without basic skills
- Problem #3: Rules to basic societal interactions
Problem #1: How authority is attained and communicated
While teaching summer school in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, I had a very rough first few days with a tall 14-year-old African American student we will call “K.” I felt that he simply had no respect for me as a person or teacher. I complained to an advisor that K usually did exactly the opposite of what I asked him. My advisor replied by asking if I ever yelled at him. I responded that of course I had not. He recommended that I yell at him to show that I am an authoritative person. The next day when K refused to stop talking after several requests, I shouted “K shut up and get on task!” Much to my surprise, he did exactly that.
K and I had very different attitudes about how one attains authority. I feel that I have authority in the classroom because I am the teacher. Similarly I think the police officer who pulls me over has authority because he is an officer, and the president has authority because he is the president. K’s cultural code held a different rule for how authority is distributed. In his mind, the authoritative person has authority, thus the authoritative person gets to be the teacher, or the officer, or the president because they are authoritative. Once I showed K that I am an authoritative person, he was happy to cooperate.
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Problem #2: Teaching critical thinking and problem solving without basic skills
The culture of power in America is uncomfortable acknowledging how power is enacted in everyday interactions. Thus we hide it behind indirect communication. This spills over to our teaching and classrooms, where a lot of our teaching is very top-down. Starting from early ages, our teaching focuses on problem solving and critical thinking much more than on direct instruction of skills.
While no longer widely popular, the “whole language” approach that taught my generation to read exemplifies this idea. This program taught students to read by reading, first with the teacher, then in small groups and finally independently. There were no phonics lessons or skills lessons. These were taught indirectly. For many students, this worked well. But for many others, especially minority and immigrant populations, (those less versed in the current American culture of power) it didn’t work at all. Top-down indirect teaching has produced high school seniors who have learned to problem solve and think critically, but can’t read, write, or perform basic arithmetic operations – the very skills our culture of power most values and discriminates on. These graduates’ logical alternative is to turn to the underworld where the barriers for cultural entry and the codes of power are different and more familiar for many.
Anecdotally, I was baffled at first as to why my brightest thinkers and best problem solvers in class seemed to be those most attracted to and recruited into gangs. I quickly discovered that most of these students were lacking the most elementary reading and writing skills, and thus felt like failures in school. The underworld gives a sense of validation to their intelligence despite their inability to learn the building blocks of the culture of power.
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Problem #3: Rules to basic societal interactions
To survive in their neighborhoods, my students need to be well versed in their own codes and cultures of power. But to survive at school, they need to learn a new code. They will have a much better chance of learning it if it is taught to them explicitly. Therefore, I teach my students skills such as how to shake hands, how to appropriately express dissent, how to fill out a job application and how authority is distributed in the culture of power.
Similar to my own difficulties in code switching in France, many students in urban school districts must learn to code switch when interacting with their scholastic and future professional environments. Their native codes are often notably different from mainstream America’s culture of power. Simple gestures like a handshake, eye-contact, or a hug have significant meaning in our culture of power—meanings that are often significantly different in other cultures.
Some of my students never look me in the eye. They do this because they have been taught deference to authority means not looking an authority figure in the eye. Imagine the impact this could have on their first interview. Any interviewer would assume they were either lying about everything they said or too shy to function normally.
Handshakes are similar. For many of my students a certain handshake is a symbol of gang membership. Gang members (this might not be true of all gangs, but it is with those I deal with) don’t just shake anyone’s hand, only those they know belong to their group. In a society where a handshake is a gesture of greeting and simple acquaintanceship refusing a handshake is almost never permissible.
These simple physical examples are a metonymy for the greater malaise that many students have as they attempt to learn both the codes of their native culture, or neighborhood along side the culture of power taught, or at least demonstrated, at school. Differences in interactions, exchanges, and all types of relationships abound between various codes. Students who fail to learn the codes of the culture of power close doors to their own futures, doors that open with the passwords that everyone around them seems to know, but no one bothered to tell them about explicitly.
Direct instruction in code switching helps students significantly. Just as I would have appreciated someone telling me explicitly how to make friends on a French playground, my students need someone to tell them explicitly the differences and similarities between the codes they have learned at home and the codes that prevail in the greater Americ
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By Adam Wilson, College Student Writer