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GRAVES: Changing demographics don't change mission, purpose of schools

Though it came with little fanfare or even notice in the general media, in the educational media it was something more along the lines of breaking news (though the criterion for what qualifies as such seems remarkably low these days). In the fall of 2014, school enrollments for the first time in American history would see white, non-Hispanic students in the minority.

This is not to say that some other ethnic group is now in the majority. Rather, there is no majority student ethnic group, at least as we define ethnic or racial groups (more on that later). White, non-Hispanic students still outnumber any other groups — they in fact make up 49.7 percent of the enrolled population in America — but they no longer make up more than half.

The reasons for this demographic change are several. White, non-Hispanic birth rates are historically, even stunningly, low. The Latino population has grown dramatically in the United States over the last several decades. The Asian population has grown as well, though it has been more steady, representing a more gradual rise. The combination of these factors has led, inexorably — Auguste Comte, father of sociology, was right; demography really is destiny in many ways — to this change in our classrooms.

Which raises, for me at least, two questions: 1. Is this phenomenon genuine or instead something contrived by observers with too little news and too much air time? 2. Regardless, should we care?

As to that first query, the meaningfulness of this change which has been predicted for at least a decade now depends on your perspective and your sense of history. In part, it depends on how you think about race and ethnicity. While 19th-century (and prior) commentators divided the world's populations into at least three, and as many as scores of, races, the modern view tends to view race as culturally defined, even as artificial, rather than representing something genetic. The first Americans coming from Europe, for example, had a much more exclusive definition of "us" as opposed to "them." "Them" included American Indians, Asians and Blacks, of course, but also meant southern and eastern Europeans, even all Europeans from the continent, and in some cases even the Irish, Welsh and Scottish, leaving only the genuine Englishman as "us." With immigration, "us" began to include other members of the United Kingdom, as well as the Dutch, the Germans and northern and western European populations. With yet more immigration, "us" began to include the Irish and southern and eastern Europeans. By earlier definitions of us, this trend of the majority becoming less than a majority has been happening over and over again as we simply change the really rather odd understanding, i.e. definitions, of just who it includes. Thus, this is really nothing new at all. The non-majority status of white, non-Hispanics students is contrived, based solely upon artificial definitions, reminiscent of the sports commentator who excitedly reports a new record for triples hit by a switch-hitting national league catcher who has played for three different teams during his career of more than 5 but less than 15 years with a dog named Skippy.

OK, so this change is both artificial and contrived. But we should care nevertheless? Some commentators argue that we should, pointing to higher poverty rates, more non-English speakers, and a disparity between the ethnic backgrounds of student bodies and the faculties who teach them. But there are several problems with this. First, poverty rates are a concern but there is no necessary connection between poverty and race. We know how to work with children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and how to meet their needs, and these are largely unrelated to ethnic considerations. Second, non-English speaking populations are nothing new — I have family members still of living memory who spoke German in school — and Americanizing and teaching English to students who speak a different language has long been a function of our schools. Several school districts in South Dakota have significant non-English speaking student populations, and they are teaching them English with great proficiency. Neither is there anything new about the fact that the ethnic backgrounds of our teachers do not match that of our students. Of course they don't — demographics change and it takes a generation or two to catch up. Besides, while similar backgrounds can help teachers better understand their students, it is not a prerequisite to providing a sound education. In its truest sense, a great education stands outside and above cultural and ethnic considerations. Thus, if American schools are not stirred or alarmed by the breaking news of changing ethnicities in our classrooms, that should really not be surprising. For our mission remains unchanged. To produce graduates who are literate and numerate. To introduce our students to the tenets of Western Civilization. To teach them to function well in our society, culturally and economically. To help them become critical thinkers. To ignite in them a love of learning. To, in other words, educate them.

That it is reasonable for schools to note the newest demographic realities with something more resembling a yawn rather than a look of astonishment or even a scowl should be obvious. Our nation after all — and it is the nation our schools serve — was not founded, as many other countries were, upon a racial identity, but on certain founding ideas: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness among them.

Such ideas are transferrable and pursuable by all peoples who desire them. It is the mission of our schools to see that such ideas persist and thrive, for the blessings of liberty are not exclusive to any race or ethnicity. They are the common inheritance of all humanity.