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Encountering Self and Other in Community-Based Education


Dr. Henry Goldschmidt is the Director of Education Programs at the Interfaith Center of New York, where he leads the “Religious Worlds of New York” summer institute for K-12 teachers. He is a cultural anthropologist, community educator, and scholar of religious and cultural diversity. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has taught religious studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University and elsewhere. He is the author of Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights (Rutgers University Press, 2006), and coeditor of Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2004). He is a native New Yorker, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.

Place-based and community-based educators are united in our efforts to break down the barriers between classrooms and communities—to ground education in experiential, student-centered encounters with the social and natural world. We work to enrich, and perhaps transform, our students’ understandings of history, society, literature, the arts, and the physical sciences by helping them engage with what Michael Umphrey calls simply “the world outside the window” (Umphrey 2007:4). On this I think we all agree. But a number of important questions remain: What, exactly, should we encourage our students to look for outside the classroom window? What aspects of community life should they engage with?  And how may we, as educators, best frame this engagement?

Needless to say, there is no single answer to these far reaching questions. Different curricula, students, and school communities call for different forms of engagement with local places and people. But there is a clear trend in the academic literature, and in the practice of place, and community-based educators. For many leading scholars, it seems, community-based education is centered, above all, on students’ engagement with places and people they feel connected to on an intimate, personal basis. As teachers, we often encourage our students to document their own neighborhoods and everyday lives, or chart the histories of their own families and communities. We tend to ask them, in short, to look “outside the window” and find reflections of themselves.

Umphrey, for example, writes movingly of a community heritage project in the rural town of Libby, Montana, in which students researched the history of their hometown, focusing on previous generations’ responses to economic dislocation and environmental degradation. “Through researching together,” he concludes,

"they [the students] had formed a “we” that included all their classmates but also their parents and grandparents and the other place makers who had created Libby. Seeing themselves as members of this large and durable “we” had given them courage [to face the community’s current economic hardships]. By engaging in their own bit of place making, they had strengthened their narrative identities, which is to say that they had found themselves, or constructed themselves if you prefer, by immersing themselves in the particular narrative environment that constituted their home place."  (ibid:8-9)

This link between education and identification—between one’s experience in school and one’s sense of belonging to a larger “we”—is extremely important for many students and communities. Gregory Smith and David Sobel are surely right to argue that, “When students embrace rather than ignore or deride their own ancestry and traditions, they will be more likely to commit themselves to the difficult but rewarding work of making their communities good places to live” (Smith and Sobel 2010:47). This is all well and good—indeed, in many contexts it is essential and transformative.



But I worry, nevertheless, that we are limiting the social and pedagogic significance of community-based education when we encourage our students to engage with communities that reflect their own sense of identity or belonging. In this essay I will suggest, somewhat to the contrary, that community-based education may best be imagined as an engagement with both self and other—with the similarities and differences between our students’ “own ancestry and traditions” and those of their neighbors. I will work to develop what might be described as an ethnographic or anthropological vision of community-based education, in which students explore the bridges and boundaries among diverse, overlapping social worlds. I will draw on my experiences developing religious diversity education programs for students in New York City schools to argue that community-based education, at its best, may offer our students a deeply human encounter with cultural difference—an encounter that will help prepare them for active citizenship in their multicultural democracy.

I will return to these issues below, but first let me ground my discussion in an encounter between diverse young New Yorkers at a mosque in Queens.

Several years ago, I joined about fifty tenth graders from a predominantly Black, Latino, and Christian public high school in the South Bronx, on a fieldtrip to explore New York’s religious diversity. With their teachers, I brought them to visit the city’s oldest and largest Hindu temple, a mid-sized mosque serving a predominantly Pakistani community, and a storefront Chinese Buddhist temple—all located just a few blocks from each other in Flushing, Queens. At each site we spoke with a community leader, who answered students’ questions about their house of worship and their religious lives. These site visits exemplify the Interfaith Center of New York’s education programs for teachers and students, which are built on a pedagogy of civic engagement—introducing New Yorkers and others to religious diversity by introducing them to their diverse neighbors. The high school teachers I worked with thought this community-based approach to the study of religion would be a valuable addition to the “world religions” unit of their global history curriculum.

When we arrived at the mosque, the students all took off their shoes, and the girls covered their hair, as we filed upstairs to a sparsely decorated prayer space.  We spoke with the president of the mosque, while at the same time a dozen or so middle school boys from the mosque’s Islamic school pursued their regular study of the Qur’an. The room was filled with the lilting sounds of quranic recitation, as the boys kneeled on the floor, rocking back and forth, chanting passages from the well-worn texts lying open before them. Our students were duly impressed when the president of the mosque explained that these young boys were attempting to memorize the Qur’an—to learn over 6,000 verses of scripture by heart, in a language they don’t speak on a daily basis.  It was a powerful image of religious devotion, and a reminder of the many important differences between our students’ own lives—including their experiences at school—and those of their Muslim neighbors.

But at the same time, I’m afraid some of our students may have overestimated these differences, and lost sight of the important things they share with young people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.  At one point in their conversation, a group of students asked the president of the mosque a series of questions about the five daily prayers, which they’d discussed in a classroom unit on the Five Pillars of Islam. They seemed to be quite concerned about—or even shocked by – these prayers, and I wasn’t sure why. It gradually became clear that some students imagined Muslims attending five long prayer services every single day, like the church services most were more familiar with.  They were understandably concerned about the implications of this demanding prayer schedule for everyday Muslim life.  One student jumped right from a question about the daily prayers to a blunt question about the boys we had seen studying the Qur’an: “Do they have a social life?” she wanted to know.  The president of the mosque responded: “What do you think, we just keep praying for the whole day?  How would you make your life?”  He reassured our students that the five daily prayers take just a few minutes each, and that young Muslims still have plenty of time to play basketball and video games.  Yes, he said, they certainly do have a social life.  “Do they eat lunch?” one of our students asked, and the president responded: “Now I know you’re joking!”  But I’m not so sure.

For some of our students, I suspect, a decontextualized, textbook knowledge of Islamic doctrine had combined with an ethnocentrically Christian understanding of prayer—and perhaps with popular stereotypes of Islamic extremism—to paint a portrait of Muslims simply “praying for the whole day,” and of Muslim teens entirely divorced from the social world that these young people share. Their classroom study of world religions had given them a basic knowledge of Islam, but it had not given them a real understanding of the similarities and differences between Muslim lives and their own. For this they needed a community-based approach to the study of religion. They needed to get out of the classroom and meet their neighbors—to gain some first-hand experience, however brief, of the religious diversity of their city.

The next day in class, many students said meeting the boys at the mosque was their favorite part of the entire trip. They were especially pleased by another moment of conversation when one of the boys talked back to the president of the mosque, yelling “You can do it!” when he was asked to translate a verse of the Qur’an. These fleeting glimpses of community life seemed to humanize Muslims in our students’ eyes. When I asked them why the boys made such a big impression, one girl said simply: “Those kids was cool—they my homies now.” And when their teacher asked them, in a written assignment, to name two things they had learned on the trip, one student wrote: “That Buddhists have to shave their hair,” which is a story for another day, “and that Muslims have normal lives.”

What does it mean for a Black Christian girl from the Bronx to say that a group of Pakistani Muslim boys from Queens “[are] my homies now”?  Both more and less, I think, than seeing them as fellow members of what Umphrey describes as a “large and durable we.” Our students’ engagement with their Muslim peers was certainly less intimate and enduring than the relationships built in the “heritage projects” described by Umphrey and many other community-based educators. There were no extended life-history interviews, no joint community service projects, no shared meals or intimate personal conversations.  In fact, these young people never learned each others’ names. Yet there was still a moment of personal connection—a fleeting connection, but heartfelt nevertheless. This connection was especially significant because it took shape across the racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries that so often separate Americans from their neighbors. It thus helped our students understand both the radical differences and profound similarities between their own lives and those of other young New Yorkers. The boys they met were trying to memorize the Qur’an, but they still talk back to their middle school teachers. They pray five times a day, but still play basketball, hang out, and of course eat lunch.  They’re different but still “normal” —perhaps even “cool.” They may not be “we,” but they can still be our “homies.”

I am not trying to suggest that all place-based and community-based education programs should work to cultivate such reflections on the boundaries between self and other. As I noted above, different forms of community engagement make sense for different students and curricula, and there are many good reasons for students to learn from the places and people they feel connected to on an intimate, personal basis. But I am trying to suggest that community-based educators must be open to the kind of learning that can only take place when students leave the comfort zone of their collective “we”—encountering unfamiliar places and people, and thus subjecting themselves to the experience of culture-shock at the heart of all ethnographic field research (for more on student ethnography see Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater 2012). This is a somewhat different understanding of place-based education than one finds in much of the current academic literature, as it rests on a different understanding of “place.”  David Gruenewald and Gregory Smith have argued that “an education in place must not be tuned to nostalgic or homogenous images of the local, but to local diversity, the diversity within places and the diversity between places” (Gruenewald and Smith 2010; see also Gruenewald 2003, 2010). In order to realize this vision of community-based education, our students must learn from their “homies” in diverse local communities.


Gruenewald, David (2003).  “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place.”  Educational Researcher, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 3-12.

Gruenewald, David (2010).  “Place-Based Education: Grounding Culturally Responsive Teaching in Geographical Diversity.”  Place-Based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity (eds. David Gruenewald and Gregory Smith), pp. 137-153.  New York: Routledge.

Gruenewald, David, and Gregory Smith (2010).  “Introduction: Making Room for the Local.”  Place-Based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity (eds. David Gruenewald and Gregory Smith), pp. xiii-xxiii.  New York: Routledge.

Smith, Gregory, and David Sobel (2010).  Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools.  New York: Routledge.

Sunstein, Bonnie Stone, and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater (2012).  FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research (4th edition).  Boston: Bedford / St. Martins.

Umphrey, Michael (2007).  The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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