Ogbu, John U(zo) 1939-2003
John Uzo Ogbu was born in Nigeria on May 9, 1939. He earned a BA in anthropology at the University of California Berkeley in 1965, followed by an MA in 1969, and PhD in 1971. He taught at Berkeley from 1970 until his death on August 20, 2003. His most influential contribution to education is his cultural-ecological theory, a grand theory explaining why some groups tend to experience low academic achievement and others do not. This work responds to other explanations for low minority group achievement such as cultural mismatch.
Cultural mismatch (also referred to as cultural discontinuity or cultural differences) suggests that minority students experience low academic achievement because some aspects of their cultures—language, dialect, perception of time and space, attitude toward collectivism and individualism—do not match the school culture. This mismatch puts them at a disadvantage compared to students who share cultural background with school teachers, text books authors, and standardized test writers. If cultural mismatch is powerful, asked Ogbu, why do immigrant minority groups such as Punjabis and Chinese that experience cultural mismatch and discrimination show relatively high academic achievement?
To answer this question Ogbu distinguished voluntary and involuntary minorities. Voluntary minorities are those who come to a society of their own choice, often through immigration. Involuntary minorities are those who come to a society through enslavement, conquest, or colonization. Voluntary minorities do not experience persistent or pervasive low achievement, whereas involuntary (castelike) nonimmigrant minorities do. In the United States, Africans (like Ogbu) and Vietnamese are voluntary minorities, and African Americans and Native Americans are involuntary minorities. While Ogbu's theory focuses on Black academic disengagement and low achievement, it is intended as a theory of how voluntary and involuntary minorities fare in societies around the world.
According to his theory, involuntary immigrants experience a history of discrimination and prejudice that causes them to turn to each other in collective identity. If they know that they cannot turn to the dominant culture for help or support, they become more dependent upon and supportive of other members of their group. As they experience this fictive kinship, they also experience oppo-sitional collective identity in which they reject behaviors and activities that represent the dominant, oppressor group. This pattern has been labeled “fear of acting White.” Ogbu helped popularize, but did not invent, this label in an article that he co-authored with Signithia Fordham. According to Fordham and Ogbu, attitudes and behaviors that mark acting White include speaking standard English, listening to White music such as rock and roll or classical music, working hard in school, and getting good grades, which means students may actively undermine their own achievement in order to show solidarity with their group and to avoid feeling not truly Black.
Ogbu's theory has generated considerable research, commentary, and criticism. Criticisms include lack of attention to social class and gender, misuse of the term caste, and misconceptions regarding the social construction of race. Perhaps of most interest to educators, it has been criticized for blaming the victim. For example, in his last book (2003), about students in Shaker Heights, Ohio, he wrote that “Black students did not generally work hard” (p. 17) and “Black parents' educational strategies are not adequate and not effective in helping their children succeed in Shaker Heights schools” (p. 279). The theory has also been criticized because, while it purports to pay attention to history, it ignores historical facts about the avid pursuit of education by African Americans. Research generated by his theory, such as Bergin and Cooks (2002), showed that for some students, merely achieving high grades was not enough to elicit accusations of acting white. In addition, the theory has been criticized for not proposing solutions.
However, in his 2003 book, Black American students in an affluent suburb: A study of academic disengagement, Ogbu began to outline policy implications of his work. He suggested those policies will fail that do not address the community forces that foster underachievement. He was dubious about interventions such as school choice, cooperative learning approaches that capitalize on the assumption that Black and other minority groups value cooperation and collaboration, and culturally responsive education that supports cultural practices and learning styles allegedly common to African Americans. He wrote that they did not address community forces that foster avoidance of hard work. He recommended that schools implement minority achievement programs that reform community forces to support academic achievement. Such programs should demonstrate the link between schooling and adult futures, teach good study habits, and expose students to successful Black role models who thrived in school. The intent would be to create a collective identity that facilitates rather than undermines academic achievement.
Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students' school success: Coping with the “burden of ‘acting White.”’ Urban Review 18(3), 176–206.
Ogbu, J. U. (1978). Minority education and caste: The American system in cross-cultural perspective. New York: Academic Press.
Ogbu, J. U. (1987). Variability in minority school performance: A problem in search of an explanation. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 18(4), 312–334.
Ogbu, J. U. (2004). Collective identity and the burden of “acting White” in black history, community, and education. Urban Review 36(1), 1–35.
Ogbu, J. U., with Davis, A. (2003). Black American students in an affluent suburb: A study of academic disengagement. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ogbu, J. U., & Simons, H. D. (1998). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 29(2), 155–188.
Bergin, D. A., & Cooks, H. C. (2002). High school students of color talk about accusations of “acting White.” Urban Review, 34(2), 113–134.
Berube, M. R. (2000). Eminent educators: studies in intellectual influence. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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