Forced assimilation in American public education

Suraj N. Kurapati

  1. Priority
    1. Language
      1. Appearance
        1. Demeanor
          1. Conclusion
            1. References

              American public education, both today and in contemporary times, has not functioned without some degree of forced assimilation; that is, it has catered specifically to the dominant culture in America while forcibly assimilating students who represent the ethnic or socio-economic minority.

              These are the results of a crude implementation of some of the chief ideals of public education: to foster community [4] and “national unity” [5]. So to better implement these ideals, the public education system in America must focus on promoting “ethno-cultural unity” [5] as a way to achieve “national unity” [5] rather than forcing assimilation, which imparts disunity.


              The concept of assimilation is primarily a concern for the minority, as it is they who undergo the process firsthand. That is, the minority student feels a sense of disconnection in the school environment due to differences in language, appearance, and social norms of demeanor. In contrast, assimilation does not affect the dominant culture as much, because schools are run by its members and schools serve to promote its values and ideas. Thus the dominant culture usually sees no problems in the education system and is apathetic towards the concerns of minorities [2]. This also fuels opposition to changes in the education system whereby the dominant culture feels that:

              The system suits me just fine, because it represents my way of life; why then, shall I change it? The minority students should adopt these values because they are good, and having done so will assist them in being successful the workplace.

              Obviously, such a viewpoint is wholly single-minded and crudely justifies the teaching methods utilized by the education system:

              It is unjust for the dominant culture to simply dismiss the concerns of minorities, since we live in a democratic [4] society. Thus the answer can be obtained most fairly if all groups understand each-other’s needs and priorities, i.e. there must be diversity, which fuels an interpenetration of cultural understanding [4], in order to improve our education system.


              A lack of fluency in dominant culture’s language can be the biggest contributor in the concern of forced assimilation, as the majority of classes taught in schools, save foreign language classes, are in English. A student who lacks fluency in English may feel isolated from their peers and their teachers.

              For example, Richard Rodriguez writes that as a result of him becoming fluent in English, he had lost confidence in speaking Spanish, which to him was associated with closeness with his family and relatives [3]. Thus he felt guilty for leaving behind his native language only to become “successful” within the dominant culture [3].

              Furthermore, the American public education system often flags the difficulty in learning English as a “deficiency,” and industriously places minority students into lower-track classes [2]. This further segregates minority students from receiving high-track education [2] as they are made to think that they are unqualified to achieve the “good” or valued positions in the dominant society.

              For example, when Malcolm X, a brilliant student, is asked to describe his future ambitions by his English teacher, he replies that he aspires to become a lawyer. In response his teacher suggests that his aspiration is not “realistic” [1] and he should aim to become a carpenter instead [1].


              The appearance of students is strictly controlled in public schools, more so in the past than today, but nevertheless in favor of the dominant culture. For example, Malcolm X “conks” (to straighten one’s hair by incinerating the scalp with lye) his natural hair in order to make it appear more like that of the dominant culture’s valued hair [1]. He later describes this act as his “first really big step towards self degradation” [1]. Through school dress- codes and images of popular media, the dominant culture imposes its valued image of a “beautiful” person upon the masses.

              For example, before I emigrated to America, I had never seen an “black” nor “white” person, i.e. there was no institutionalized sense of “race.” However, after several years of residence, I noticed that I favored images of “white” people over those of “black” ones. More specifically, I favored the straight hair over “corn-rows” or “du-rags” that many people wear in recent times. I was shocked! How is it that I, who had no prior knowledge, bias, nor prejudice towards any of these people, became to favor one over the other? This is due to my subconscious being bombarded with ideas of what is “beautiful” and what is not: the images I saw on television, cinemas, and daily life in public schools.

              Furthermore, if a school has a dress-code which enforces a certain kind of clothing to be worn, it may further alienate minority students. For example, if students were not allowed to wear any head decorations, i.e. hats, when they recited the national anthem so as to give respect to “the flag,” then minority students may not comply. If the school forces the removal of such head decorations, then a Sikh student, who wears a turban, would certainly feel humiliated and violated to have been forced to remove his turban. It is equivalent to violating a person’s universal human rights, such as denying them the right of clothing. In such a situation, the student who does not remove their head decorations becomes alienated from the rest, for the student appears to lack patriotism and may thus be interpreted as some form of a heretic. Also, if the school’s administrators are not understanding of the minority student’s situation, they may brashly expel them or move them into a lower track [2].


              Alongside the troubles of assimilating with dominant language is that of the social norms of demeanor. One is, in many ways, subtly outcast from the dominant society if one does not exercise the mannerisms that the dominant culture expects.

              For example, in my culture, one does not openly address nor speak with others with whom one is not acquainted with. However, now in America, every morning as I am walking to class, somebody will greet me with the words “good morning.” Upon hearing this I become very uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic, as I must respond to them for the sake of not insulting them. It is like being coerced to perform under the spotlight of a large opera hall. Sometimes I simply nod and carry on, but I feel guilty to have offended the other person. Of course, it may not be of such importance to those of the dominant culture, as it is their natural and customary way of greeting others.

              I also find it difficult to forge meaningful relationships with others, especially when meeting someone new. For example, in America, one often says “it was nice to meet you,” when one departs with someone. However, in my mind these words are extremely superficial, for I feel that the other person is simply uttering this dialogue for the sake of their own demeanor and has embodied no true feelings in their message. In this manner, I feel as though disjoint from my peers for I cannot accurately gauge the depth of their dialogue or gestures. I feel as though it is inevitable for one to assimilate with the dominant culture in order to survive; this message weighs heavily, in my opinion, in the minds of minority students as they step out of their homes and into the world of dominant culture, outside.


              Considering the clashes between the dominant culture and those of minorities, I feel that the education system is trying to promote “national unity” [5] by forcing it upon students and ignoring “ethno-cultural unity” [5], whereas it would be more effective to gain “national unity” [5] through the promotion of “ethno-cultural unity” [5].

              In this manner, students can be better connected to and gain a deeper understanding of each-other, which facilitates the formation of relationships. These relationships form from an interpenetration of needs and wants which is found in a community. Having developed such a community, we observe the process of “socioendosmosis” [4], which in turn promotes “national unity” [5].

              Thus the key to “national unity” [5] is not the propagation of the dominant mono-culture, but rather in diversification of our public schools and institutions.


              (cited in IEEE format)

              1. M. X, “Mascot,” in The Evolution of Education, D. Swanger, Eds. Ohio: Thomson Learning Custom Publishing, 2002. pp. 260-274.

              2. J. Oakes, “The Distribution of Knowledge,” in The Evolution of Education, D. Swanger, Eds. Ohio: Thomson Learning Custom Publishing,

                1. pp. 305-336.
              3. R. Rodriguez, “Aria,” in The Evolution of Education, D. Swanger, Eds. Ohio: Thomson Learning Custom Publishing, 2002. pp. 378-386.

              4. J. Dewey, “Labor and Leisure,” in The Evolution of Education, D. Swanger, Eds. Ohio: Thomson Learning Custom Publishing, 2002. pp. 51-60.

              5. D. Swanger, “The Evolution of Education.” Ohio: Thomson Learning Custom Publishing, 2002.