The "cultural competence" racket in American education

A small excerpt from a big article by Norman Levitt:

"A new buzzword has entered the lexicon of academic fashion in the USA, threatening to drown poor professors like me in yet another wave of coy euphemism. The term is 'cultural competence'. Like its predecessors 'affirmative action,' 'diversity,' and 'multiculturalism', it attempts to cloak problematical and even disturbing policy initiatives in linguistic vestments that suggest that no right-minded person could possibly demur. A 'culturally competent' academic, one might naively surmise, would be one who has absorbed and is able to propound some of the deep values - ethical, aesthetic or epistemological - that embody the stellar achievements of Western culture, one who could explain, for instance, why Dante or Kant or Ingres is present, at least subtly, in the assumptions under which we all live. Or something like that.

This, alas, would be a comical error. 'Cultural competence' is, in essence, a bureaucratic weapon. 'Cultural competence', or rather, your presumed lack thereof, is what you will be clobbered with if you are imprudent enough to challenge or merely to have qualms about 'affirmative action', 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism', as those principles are now espoused by their most fervent academic advocates. Cultural competence, like the UK's proposed new identity card, is something a professor is supposed to keep handy at all times, and to display with a straight face whenever confronted with a socially or ethnically charged situation, in order to dispel any suspicion of racism, sexism or Eurocentrism that might arise in the minds of the professionally suspicious.

The term has been around for a couple of years, drastically mutating as it puts down deeper roots. Originally, it was fairly innocuous. It was largely restricted to the healthcare professions, and referred to the ability to function effectively with members of ethnic minorities and immigrant groups by dint of insights into the local community's idiosyncratic prejudices, fears and assumptions, insofar as these differed from the norms of middle-class white society. It seems obvious that such knowledge could be helpful to a doctor, nurse or social worker hoping to convince patients or clients from these groups to keep medical appointments, complete a course of antibiotics or have their children vaccinated. Though cultural competence, in this sense, presumes a degree of open-mindedness and empathy, it seems only vaguely political, at most.

Now, however, cast loose from its original moorings, the phrase has become emphatically political. I offer the reader, with some trepidation, the formal definition as jargonistically set out by some purported educators: Cultural competence requires that individuals and organisations:

a) Have a defined set of values and principles, demonstrated behaviours, attitudes, policies and structures that enable them to work effectively in a cross-cultural manner;

b) Demonstrate the capacity to 1) value diversity, 2) engage in self-reflection, 3) manage the dynamics of difference, 4) acquire and institutionalise cultural knowledge, and 5) adapt to the diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve;

c) Incorporate and advocate the above in all aspects of leadership, policymaking, administration, practice and service delivery while systematically involving staff, students, families, key stakeholders and communities.

If we divest this of its thick integument of happy talk and explore the details, we find that in practice it means deference, even servility, toward the norms and values espoused by fervent multiculturalists, along with tame assent to whatever measures they propose to achieve their aims. Attempts to explicate the idea occasionally slip into language that reveals the underlying political programme:

In the context of higher education, cultural competence necessitates abject refusal to articulate or defend ideas that might make certain protected groups uncomfortable. Professors can only be deemed 'culturally competent' if they openly profess the approved corpus of received values.

Here is an illustrative if fragmentary list of transgressions that would likely strip an academic of any chance of being designated culturally competent:

* Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to come back from the laundry;

* Taking issue with the claim that Malcolm X was a paragon of humanitarianism and political genius;

* Disputing the wisdom of feminist theory as regards the social constructedness of gender;

* Asserting that the early demographic history of the Americas is more accurately revealed by scientific anthropology than by the Native American folklore and myth celebrated by tribal militants;

* Expressing doubts that 'queer theory' should be made the epicenter of literary studies.

Likewise, to maintain that hiring, retention and promotion within the university should focus on the traditional academic virtues of the scholar, rather than assigning enormous importance to the candidate's race, ethnicity, sex or sexuality, would banish one permanently from the culturally competent elect. To deny that feminist theorists should call all the shots on matters having to do with sexual harassment would be an act of self-immolation".

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