For the health of our state we need to turn the page on cultural insensitivity

The insensitivity toward cultures other than his own demonstrated by Governor Le Page’s February 11th ‘joke’ at the expense of a Chinese man and name perfectly illustrates the need for more World Language and Global Education in Maine.

To begin with, in an era when the demographics and economy of the state are changing, and when a globalized economy is no longer theoretical but well-established, we cannot afford the ignorance (whether good-humored or dark) that allows one to do things like alienate businessmen like Mr. Chiu – the subject of the unfortunate joke – whose investment dollars and vision have done a great deal to preserve much-needed jobs in Maine.

Furthermore, our young people will very likely attend colleges and enter the workface surrounded by people from cultures other than their own, and we want them to thrive and to bring honor to Maine. For the health of our state we need to look to the global competency education of current and future generations. We should make sure our citizens do not grow up insensitive to the experiences and history of diverse cultural groups.

World Language courses and global competency training explicitly teach how to understand and interact successfully with people from cultures and language groups other than one’s own. Languages by their very nature immerse students in the challenge of understanding and learning ways of thinking different from their own. Global Education teaches problem solving through a lens focused on empathy and an understanding of culture and history.

At best, Governor Le Page was just trying to be funny when he addressed the audience in Lewiston. However looked at through a darker lens, he pushed aside a century of intense racial prejudice endured by Chinese immigrants in this country. Is he familiar with that history of hatred and oppression against Chinese-Americans? Did he understand that by joking about a Chinese name in public he was rubbing raw deep wounds still felt by the four thousand Chinese-Americans living and contributing to life in the state of Maine? Whatever his intent, Governor Le Page sends a message that resounds beyond the borders of the state when he makes this sort of loaded remark, in effect telling others that Maine is an intolerant state.

The 127th Legislature is considering dropping the newly crafted and adopted graduation requirements for high school students. Among these requirements is proficiency in a second language – not fluency, which is a much higher bar, but proficiency – which means being able to get around successfully in the language, being able to communicate on a basic level with native speakers. This is not a high bar. All over the world high school graduates are routinely expected to show much more than proficiency in multiple languages, not just one. The reason the state would drop the current cautious language requirement is purely financial. Instead of lowering standards, let’s tell our legislators we want them to fund schools at 55%, as promised years ago, and use the additional funds to implement mandates such as the language requirement.

Students educated to speak languages and to understand cultures other than their own do not make the kind of joke Governor Le Page made about Mr. Chiu. Maine needs more language and global education for its students, not less. All across the country states are beginning to adopt special honors certificates awarded with the high school diploma certifying that a student has achieved a significant level of global competency – which includes advanced language skills as well as the skills that allow one to recognize perspectives other than one’s own and to communicate with people from other cultures. More and more states are appointing Global Education specialists to promote global competency education in the curriculum because they understand the health of their states depends on a populace ready to participate globally.

For the health of our state, Maine should be a leader in language and global education. We can’t afford to be left behind on this.Let’s turn the page on jokes such as that made recently by Governor Le Page.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.