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On the 30th Anniversary of Emily Style’s “Curriculum as Window and Mirror”

Layli MaparyanThis week, the Wellesley Centers for Women celebrated the 30th anniversary of Emily Jane Style’s influential essay, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror”, first published in 1988 in the Oak Knoll School monograph, Listening for All Voices, and, in 1996, distributed more widely in the journal Social Science Record. This important critical, yet accessible, analysis of the limitations of a culturally one-sided curriculum made an important intervention on classroom culture and pedagogical praxis. Style’s introduction of the “windows and mirrors” metaphor helped educators to see that students and teachers needed to see both others and themselves in the curriculum and in the classroom. Indeed, this essay drove home the point that education should be about both “scholarship on the shelves” and “scholarship in the selves.”

“Curriculum as Window and Mirror” became a foundational document of the National SEED Project, founded by Peggy McIntosh in 1987, which Style co-directed with McIntosh for its first 25 years, and, later during the third decade, also with Brenda Flyswithhawks. The National SEED Project, with its New Leaders Week trainings, has transformed the thinking and practice of nearly 2,600 attendees, who in turn have influenced 30,000+ teachers, changing the classroom experience of over three million students, in the United States and around the world.

The National SEED Project has been integral part of the Wellesley Centers for Women and its strategy of “Shaping a Better World Through Research and Action.” The Wellesley Centers for Women has served as a home – indeed, as fertile ground – for the evolution of SEED, which needed a supportive home base from which to do its transformational public work. As a feminist and womanist institution that upholds the holism of research, theory, and practice, SEED has perfectly embodied the ethos of WCW, and WCW has embraced all that SEED is, has been, and will become.

It is against this backdrop that Emily Style’s article, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” is such an integral part of WCW’s intellectual history. From it, multitudes have encountered, to quote her, “the need for curriculum to function as both window and as mirror, in order to reflect and reveal most accurately both a multicultural world and the student herself or himself. If the student is understood as occupying a dwelling of self,” she continues, “education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected. Knowledge of both types of framing,” she ultimately concludes, “is basic to a balanced education which is committed to affirming the essential dialectic between the self and the world.”

Multiculturalism in education, particularly K-12 education, was still a new and contentious idea when Style put these words to paper. Both perspective and method were needed to realize the nascent notions of multicultural education, and, because she offered both, particularly through the vehicle of SEED’s peer-led model of professional development, thousands of teachers, and millions of students have been awakened to themselves and each other in a way that defies the force of conventional socialization and enriches the humanness of all who have been touched. The social justice impact of this single piece of scholarship has been profound!

Current events only remind us of the value of Style’s windows and mirrors metaphor. Apropos of today, Style wrote these signal words in her original paper: “Now, the common sense of needing to provide both windows and mirrors in the curriculum may seem unnecessary to emphasize, and yet recent scholarship on women and men of color attests to the copious blind spots of the traditional curriculum. White males find, in the house of curriculum, many mirrors to look in, and few windows which frame others’ lives. Women and men of color, on the other hand, find almost no mirrors of themselves in the house of curriculum; for them it is often all windows. White males are thereby encouraged to be solipsistic, and the rest of us to feel uncertain that we truly exist.” A generation after she penned these words, we see their truth in action, as white women and women of color, as well as men of color and those across and off the gender binary of all colors, strain to assert voice against the backdrop of a resilient white male social fabric. And yet, over time, because of work like hers, we see this fabric fraying to reveal a beautiful quilted tapestry of ebullient difference coming up from the rear and recoloring and retexturing society. This new fabric creates a circle in which all can be included.

At moments of historical reflection, we look back, we pause at the present, and we look forward. As we revisit Emily Jane Style’s 1988 “Curriculum as Window and Mirror” today, we celebrate its wisdom and genius around transforming society through the institution of education and the human-relational-power of teachers and students – particularly at the classroom level. We can also affirm that work such as this has never been more badly needed than it is right now. By celebrating together – celebrating both Emily and her essay - let us lay the seeds for the next 30 years and beyond.

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a developmental psychologist by training. She has published two books on womanism, The Womanist Reader (2006) and The Womanist Idea (2012), with a third, Womanism Rising, under review. In addition to these books, she has published extensively on identities and their social context, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and spirituality, as well as in the history of psychology on the social scientific activism of Kenneth and Mamie Clark.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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