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From “Culturally Deprived” to “At Risk”: The Politics of Popular Expression and Educational Inequality in the United States, 1960-1985


by Sylvia L. M. Martinez & John L. Rury — 2012

This article examines the terms “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged” in light of their popular use in the sixties and following decades, particularly in the ethnic and mainstream press. These expressions represented an effort to explain differences in educational attainment and academic achievement along lines of social class, race, and ethnicity from an environmental, liberal viewpoint. We consider the use of such terms from the standpoint of both the African American and Mexican American communities at the time, representing perspectives from the North, South, and West Coast. In doing this, we document a national effort by educators and the concerned public to comprehend and address long-standing patterns of social and educational inequity. State and federal programs that used “compensatory” and “remedial” education to address the problems of “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged” communities are also considered, along with political tensions within and between the African American and Mexican American communities over benefits to be gained. The use of these expressions was eventually marked by controversy as ethnic communities and academic critics labeled them a new form of prejudice, based on conceptions of cultural and academic inadequacy. While the terms fell out of favor, a new generation was left with the problem of explaining persistent differences in educational outcomes and academic achievement that marked children’s lives. The expression “at risk” was brought into the mainstream, and the academic terms “social capital” and “cultural capital” were introduced and gained currency. While these new terms have not sparked the controversies of the past, they fail to fully characterize the systematic educational disadvantages experienced by children from poor or minority backgrounds. The article closes with a brief discussion of the recurring dilemma of how best to describe persistently unequal educational outcomes, particularly when they continue to correspond to broad patterns of social and economic inequality in contemporary society.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-31
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16691, Date Accessed: 9/2/2014 7:42:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Sylvia Martinez
    University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
    E-mail Author
    SYLVIA L. M. MARTINEZ, assistant professor of education, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is the author of publications on the educational experience of Chicano students in the post-World War II period. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education and the National Teacher Education Journal.
  • John Rury
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    JOHN L. RURY, professor of education and (by courtesy) history, University of Kansas, is the author of Education and Social Change: Contours in the History of American Education and other publications on the history of American education, women’s education, and urban education.
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