Education plays a pivotal role in a nation: it prepares its citizens for personal growth and life in society, providing tools and knowledge that equip students to contribute in a functioning, independent nation. In the case of the United States and other Western countries, interaction with other nations that may have conflicting values and worldviews is part of daily life. How are schools equipping students to deal with this exposure to different understandings of what the world should be like, or who should run it and how? There are several approaches available to educators, but the two main ones are assimilation and acculturation.
Assimilation in education includes the concept that one of the main functions and aims of schools is to help students to be shaped into fully functioning citizens. In order to do so, the common cultural traits of society must be infused in curricula, and students are to be encouraged to not only understand them but also to adopt them, leaving behind their own cultures and ethnic heritages in favor of the nation’s mainstream. Assimilation has many advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of Assimilation
Assimilation can be seen as a way of overcoming some of the challenges of a globalized world. For instance, the increased level of cultural exchange between nations can play a substantial role of national culture criticism. Ideas about how things can be done differently—or understood differently—can serve to undermine a nation’s self-identity if that self-identity is not strongly rooted and established. A deeply assimilated society knows what it stands for and will resist foreign ideas that contradict the ethos of the nation (Waite, 2012).
For an assimilationist society, cultural or ethnic characteristics that deviate from the mainstream are considered barriers to building a unified society that provides opportunities for all citizens. Assimilation can help to overcome these barriers by making every citizen an equal part of the whole without having to consider factors that bring division and discord. If all citizens are considered national citizens above any other divisive considerations, unity is within reach, strengthening the country and helping it to concentrate on matters of economic growth and democracy.
Schools are where a major portion of nation building takes place. For assimilationists, the effort of constructing a nation out of many disparate parts includes shaping those parts to fit the whole. Students are taught mainstream values and that they are part of the mainstream history, set of values, and world outlook. By focusing on what is considered the national heritage and common values, it is believed that cohesiveness and unity can be reached at the expense of features and characteristics that are stumbling blocks to having a strong national identity (Waite, 2012).
Assimilationists also believe that by providing the knowledge and skills that the nation holds dear, in ways and approaches that disregard ethnicity or different cultural backgrounds, schools are helping to overcome any differences and build a stronger, more equal nation. By embracing the mainstream values and culture, and learning about them in the same ways that other, more fully assimilated individuals have access to the same content, individuals are becoming increasingly integrated and fully functioning parts of the whole (Banks, 2006).
Disadvantages of Assimilation
Assimilation in education can have negative results and unintended consequences, such as the inadvertent exclusion of students. For instance, different cultures and ethnicities may lean towards different learning styles that may not fit well with the learning styles of mainstream culture or ethnicity. By presenting the curriculum in ways that are appropriate for mainstream students only, schools may be putting non-mainstream students at a disadvantage. This disadvantage may result in lower test scores and unfavorable tracking (Boykin, 2000).
Also, disregard for individual, ethnic and cultural learning styles can help perpetuate perceptions of mainstream superiority and non-mainstream inability to perform as well as mainstream students. As such, assimilationist education can be interpreted as a way to ensure mainstream student success at the expense of non-mainstream student failure. It also makes it much more difficult for non-mainstream students to reach the learning goals and outcomes proposed by such curriculum implemented in a way that overlooks their unique characteristics and learning styles.
Another disadvantage of assimilation in education is that this concept is usually backed by proponents of cultural deprivation and genetic paradigms, which can function as racist and segregationist tools that exclude non-mainstream students and make it more difficult for them to reach academic success (Banks, 2006). It could be argued that by segregating part of the population and excluding it from full access to society’s benefits, the nation could also be failing to utilize all of its resources to their full potential; this would result in decreased competitiveness and could be seen as a self-inflicted wound in a globalized world that requires the best of all people all the time.
Acculturation happens when different cultures interact, are influenced (or even changed) by each other, but remain essentially the same. Acculturation in education values different cultures, encourages interaction among them, but does not seek to change them as assimilation does.
Western societies are now part of a globalized world, where travel and communication between different cultures, ethnicities and nations is part of daily life. Even for the most remote individuals in these societies, it has become nearly impossible not to have had contact with cultural or material traits that are originally foreign to them. An example would be Chinese restaurants present in nearly every city in the United States, or even pizza delivery businesses that are widespread in our country. These two culinary influences show how acculturation works by exposing citizens to a foreign element that is embraced, but is changed and brings change, while remaining essentially the same and allowing the other party to retain its essence as well. The Italian pizza has now become part of American culture and an indispensible food item for millions of American families. In essence, the pizza has remained the same for hundreds of years; but pizzas made in the United States are very different from true Italian pizzas, and both types can be easily recognized as pizzas despite the variety of ingredients, how the cheese is used and how much tomato sauce is applied.
Acculturation in education allows for cultural interchange and exchange, without requiring that cultures or ethnic backgrounds be erased or changed in favor of a mainstream, common culture. In acculturation, both cultures in contact with each other are changed but remain essentially the same. Both cultures are valued and should not seek to impose their values on each other.
Acculturation in education requires accommodation. Accommodation happens when the different cultures and ethnicities are valued and allowed to retain their characteristics while interacting with each other. All cultures can coexist and interact in a peaceful, organized and inclusive environment that fosters communication and diversity. Such an environment is not easy to attain—there will likely be resistance—but in order for true acculturation to take place, accommodation must also be strived for because the group is more important than the individuals of each group (Banks, 2006).
Acculturation with accommodation in education requires that schools not only foster environments where different cultures can interact peacefully and orderly, but also that they reflect the importance of such an environment in the way they implement their curriculum, organize their daily activities, and carry on the business of being a school. School policies need to be aligned with the goal of a welcoming environment that allows for acculturation with accommodation.
Assimilation With Accommodative Acculturation
One could argue that the advantages of both assimilation and acculturation can be used to better serve the citizens of a nation, and foster understanding and interaction that can strengthen the understanding of the ethos of the nation, giving the country access to its full potential.
Acculturation with accommodation allows for many cultures to interact peacefully, learning from each other and dialoguing with one another. This type of acculturation values differences, but also allows for each party to be changed while retaining its essential characteristics. In a globalized world, the ability to understand and interact with different cultures is an essential characteristic of successful citizens and nations (Mehmet & Ahmet Selcuk, 2012).
Assimilation in education strives to form a national culture by focusing on a single curriculum that stresses mainstream ideas and cultural traits. This approach has the advantage of strengthening national identity, giving citizens the tools they need to better understand who they are and what should be their role in the world. In a sense, assimilation also allows citizens to interact in a globalized world because it gives them an anchor.
Both assimilation and acculturation have valuable roles to play in education if they are applied in non-extremist ways. Some assimilation occurs when non-mainstream students interact with and learn about the mainstream culture. A student may adopt some mainstream traits or ideas, or even identify with the dominant ethnic or cultural group while not officially belonging to that group (Gay, 2000). Acculturation would occur when the student interacts with other cultures; such interaction would likely bring about some changes in the student’s understanding about the world and other cultures, and would add new dimensions to the mainstream culture as well. Accommodation would allow this interaction to take place without the mainstream culture being imposed on the student, while valuing all cultures and allowing them to interact with each other. The curriculum would include various points of view that would foster discussions and the exchange of perspectives and worldviews.
In sum, both assimilation and acculturation are important for education, but both require accommodation in order to bring about a meaningful learning experience for all students and result in tangible, long-lasting benefits for society as a whole. One such benefit is the nation’s access to its full human potential in a very competitive world, where creativity and resourcefulness are prerequisites to success.
Banks, J. (2006). Cultural diversity and education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Boykin, A. (2000). The talent development model of schooling: Placing students at promise for academic success. Journal Of Education For Students Placed At Risk, 5(1&2), 3-25.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Mehmet, T., & Ahmet Selcuk, A. (2012). Training future members of the world with an understanding of global citizenship. Procedia: Social And Behavioral Sciences, 47, 881-885. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.06.751
Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Waite, L. (2012). Neo-assimilationist citizenship and belonging policies in Britain: Meanings for transnational migrants in northern England. Geoforum, 43(2), 353. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.08.009