3 Important Themes of American Culture that Influence Our Schools

School culture can be defined as the shared beliefs, traditions, and behaviors within the school community. Considering the diverse nature of today’s society, it is sometimes difficult for students, parents, and/or teachers within a school community to understand their culture relative to that of the school, particularly when the two cultures do not easily mesh.

Although the United States consists of a population with a vast range of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, a number of themes in American culture influence all Americans, regardless of background differences. Here are just three of them.

  1. Protestant Ideology and American Culture. Core values of American society are historically and fundamentally based on concepts of Protestantism, capitalism, and republicanism.

The influence of Protestant ideology dates all the way back to the first half of the 19th century. It was evident in school activities. For example, Bible reading and prayer were a normal part of schooling.

Back then, schools were the vehicle for Americanization. This was how immigrants were assimilated into the dominant culture. Schools were widely used to guide the morals, attitudes, and knowledge of American culture to all children attending American schools. They operated as a mechanism through which immigrant children were assimilated by learning American language, traditions, and beliefs that primarily reflected those of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs).

Diversity has long been a central element of the American way of life. Diversity refers to differences in racial or ethnic background, age, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. The Constitution was designed to protect the rights of all American citizens. These rights provide members of society maximum freedom within the confines of established laws.

But throughout the history of the nation, certain groups of citizens have needed to wage campaigns to secure these rights. And today, there are still some groups whose rights aren’t protected by the Constitution. Individuals and groups who don’t reflect the WASP status quo have historically had more difficulty accessing rights in the United States.

  1. Personal Freedom and Individuality. Personal freedom originates from the idea of being free of government constraints, and it is an essential component of constitutional democracy. Personal freedom includes the right to live in dignity and security and to seek fulfillment. Members of society are given the opportunity to think for themselves and make their own decisions—values that emphasize individualism, creativity, and autonomy. Individuals are also entitled to a set of public freedoms including the right to vote.

The notion of personal choice is deeply embedded in American culture. An average American is forced to make hundreds of calculated decisions in a single day. As you know, each one is influenced by the external and social environment. Some choices are highly valued by society, while others are limited by inequities in social class, unequal access to education and wealth, and biases that include racism and sexism.

In addition, the quest for self-reliance and autonomy is an important part of culture in the United States. But some Americans experience conflict between autonomy and assimilation. In many ways, schools reflect this contradiction and the challenges it may present. Students are encouraged to conform to dominant cultural norms at school, which may not coincide with minority cultural norms students experience away from school.

  1. Political and Social Equality. Political and social equality, although ideal in theory, have been difficult to achieve. Inequities among groups persist even to this day.

Legislative actions at the national level have been necessary to ensure the realization of these American values. For example, the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote and run for public office, and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discriminatory voting practices that had interfered with the right of African Americans to vote.

Social equality—with all groups or members of a community having the same status—has been one of the most elusive goals in American culture. To maintain social equality, every person is entitled to equality under the law. The law must be applied impartially regardless of the individual’s identity or status. Social equality includes equal access to a number of resources such as education, health care, equal opportunities to work as a means for avoiding the creation of a privileged class.

Despite our laws promoting social equality, socioeconomic stratification in the United States has resulted in differentiated access to resources. But the notion of social mobility, or the ability of individuals to move up the social socioeconomic ladder, is a tenacious ideal: the “American dream.” It is so embedded in American culture that blame for the inability to improve one’s station in life is often attributed to the individual.

What do you think? What other strongly held American ideals might affect the education given in our schools?


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