The Debate Over Multicultural Education in America
America has long been called “The Melting Pot” due to the fact that it is made up of a varied mix of races, cultures, and ethnicities. As more and more immigrants come to America searching for a better life, the population naturally becomes more diverse. This has, in turn, spun a great debate over multiculturalism. Some of the issues under fire are who is benefiting from the education, and how to present the material in a way so as to offend the least amount of people. There are many variations on these themes as will be discussed later in this paper.
In the 1930’s several educators called for programs of cultural diversity that encouraged ethnic and minority students to study their respective heritages. This is not a simple feat due to the fact that there is much diversity within individual cultures. A look at a 1990 census shows that the American population has changed more noticeably in the last ten years than in any other time in the twentieth century, with one out of every four Americans identifying themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or American Indian (Gould 198). The number of foreign born residents also reached an all time high of twenty million, easily passing the 1980 record of fourteen million. Most people, from educators to philosophers, agree that an important first step in successfully joining multiple cultures is to develop an understanding of each others background. However, the similarities stop there. One problem is in defining the term “multiculturalism”. When it is looked at simply as meaning the existence of a culturally integrated society, many people have no problems. However, when you go beyond that and try to suggest a different way of arriving at that culturally integrated society, everyone seems to have a different opinion on what will work. Since education is at the root of the problem, it might be appropriate to use an example in that context. Although the debate at Stanford University ran much deeper than I can hope to touch in this paper, the root of the problem was as follows: In 1980, Stanford University came up with a program – later known as the “Stanford-style multicultural curriculum” which aimed to familiarize students with traditions, philosophy, literature, and history of the West. The program consisted of 15 required books by writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Aquinas, Marx, and Freud. By 1987, a group called the Rainbow Coalition argued the fact that the books were all written by DWEM’s or Dead White European Males. They felt that this type of teaching denied students the knowledge of contributions by people of color, women, and other oppressed groups. In 1987, the faculty voted 39 to 4 to change the curriculum and do away with the fifteen book requirement and the term “Western” for the study of at least one non-European culture and proper attention to be given to the issues of race and gender (Gould 199). This debate was very important because its publicity provided the grounds for the argument that America is a pluralistic society and to study only one people would not accurately portray what really makes up this country.
Proponents of multicultural education argue that it offers students a balanced appreciation and critique of other cultures as well as our own (Stotsky 64). While it is common sense that one could not have a true understanding of a subject by only possessing knowledge of one side of it, this brings up the fact that there would never be enough time in our current school year to equally cover the contributions of each individual nationality. This leaves teachers with two options. The first would be to lengthen the school year, which is highly unlikely because of the political aspects of the situation. The other choice is to modify the curriculum to only include what the instructor (or school) feels are the most important contributions, which again leaves them open to criticism from groups that feel they are not being equally treated. A national standard is out of the question because of the fact that different parts of the country contain certain concentrations of nationalities. An example of this is the high concentration of Cubans in Florida or Latinos in the west. Nonetheless, teachers are at the top of the agenda when it comes to multiculturalism. They can do the most for children during the early years of learning, when kids are most impressionable. By engaging students in activities that follow the lines of their multicultural curriculum, they can open up young minds while making learning fun. In one first grade classroom, an inventive teacher used the minority students to her advantage by making them her helpers as she taught the rest of the class some simple Spanish words and customs. This newly acquired vocabulary formed a common bond among the children in their early years, an appropriate time for learning respect and understanding (Pyszkowski 154).
Another exciting idea is to put children in the setting of the culture they are learning about. By surrounding children in the ideas and customs of other cultures, they can better understand what it is like to be removed from our society altogether, if only for a day. Having kids dress up in foreign clothing, sample foods and sing songs from abroad makes educating easier on the teacher by making it fun for the students. A simple idea that helps teachers is to let students speak for themselves. Ask students how they feel about each other and why. This will help dispel stereotypes that might be created in the home. By asking questions of each other, students can get firsthand answers about the beliefs and customs of other cultures, along with some insight as to why people feel the way they do, something that can never be adequately accomplished through a textbook.
Students are not the only ones who can benefit from this type of learning. Teachers certainly will pick up on educational aspects from other countries. If, for instance, a teacher has a minority student from a different country every year, he or she can develop a well rounded teaching style that would in turn, benefit all students. Teachers can also keep on top of things by regularly attending workshops and getting parents involved so they can reinforce what is being taught in the classroom at home.
The New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee has come up with six guidelines that they think teachers should emphasize in order to help break down ethnic barriers. These steps are as follows: First, from the very beginning, social studies should be taught from a global perspective. We are all equal owners of the earth, none of us are more entitled than others to share in its wealth or misfortune. The uniqueness of each individual is what adds variety to our everyday life. Second, social studies will continue to serve nation building purposes. By pointing out the things we share in common, it will be easier to examine the individual things that make us different. Third, the curriculum must strive to be informed by the most up to date scholarship. The administrators must know that in the past, we have learned from our mistakes, and we will continue to do so in the future. By keeping an open mind, we will take in new knowledge and different viewpoints as they are brought up. Fourth, students need to see themselves as active makers and changers of culture and society. If given the skills to judge people and their thoughts fairly, and the knowledge that they can make a difference, students will take better control of life in the future. Fifth, the program should be committed to the honoring and continuing examination of democratic values as an essential basis for social organization and nation building. Although the democratic system is far from perfect, it has proven in the past that it can be effective if we continue to put effort into maintaining it while leaving it open for change. Sixth, social studies should be taught not solely as information, but rather through the critical examination of ideas and events rooted in time and place and responding to social interests. The subject needs to be taught with excitement that sparks kids interest and motivates them to want to take place in the shaping of the future of our country (NYSSSRADC 145-47).
In order to give a well rounded multicultural discussion, as James Banks explains, teachers need to let students know how knowledge reflects the social, political, and economic context in which it was created. Knowledge explained by powerful groups in society differs greatly from that of its less powerful counterparts (Banks 11). For example, it should be pointed out how early Americans are most often called “pioneers” or “settlers” in social studies texts, while foreigners are called “immigrants”. They should realize that to Native Americans, pioneers were actually the immigrants, but since the “pioneers” later went on to write the textbooks, it is not usually described that way. By simply looking at the term “western culture” it is obvious that this is a viewpoint of people from a certain area. If students are aware that to Alaskans, the west was actually the south, they can realize the bearings of how the elite in society determine what is learned. By not falling victim to these same misconceptions, students can better make unprejudiced decisions about those around them. Another important aspect students need to realize is that knowledge alone isn’t enough to shape a society. The members themselves have to be willing to put forth the time and effort and show an interest in shaping their society in order for it to benefit all people.
While generally opposed to the idea, Francis Ryan points out that “Multicultural education programs indeed may be helpful for all students in developing perspective-taking skills and an appreciation for how ethnic and minority traditions have evolved and changed as each came into contact with other groups” (Ryan 137). It would certainly give people a sense of ethnic pride to know how their forefathers contributed to the building of the American society that we live in today. It is also a great feeling to know that we can change what we feel is wrong to build a better system for our children. Minorities would benefit from learning the evolution of their culture and realizing that the ups and downs along the way do not necessarily mean that their particular lifestyle is in danger of extinction.
Some opponents feel that the idea of multiculturalism will, instead of uniting cultures, actually divide them. They feel that Americans should try and think of themselves as a whole rather than people from different places all living together. They go even further to say that it actually goes against our democratic tradition, the cornerstone of American society (Stotsky 64).
In Paul Gannon’s article “Balancing Multicultural and Civic Education will Take More Than Social Stew,” he brings up an interesting point that “Education in the origins, evolution, advances and defeats of democracy must, by its nature, be heavily Western and also demand great attention to political history (Gannon 8). Since both modern democracy and its alternatives are derived mostly from European past, and since most of the participants were white males who are now dead, the choices are certainly limited. If we try to avoid these truths or sidestep them in any way, we cannot honestly say we are giving an accurate description of our history.
Robert Hassinger agrees with Gannon and adds that we cannot ignore the contributions of DWEM’s for the simple fact that they are just that. He thinks that we should study such things as the rise of capitalism or ongoing nationalism in other countries, but should not be swayed in our critical thinking by the fact that some people will not feel equally treated or even disrespected (Hassinger 11). There certainly must be reasons why many influential people in our history have been DWEM’s, and we should explore these reasons without using race and sex alone as reasons for excluding them from our curriculum. When conflicts arise with the way we do things, we should explore why rather than compromise in order to protect a certain groups feelings.
Francis Ryan warns that trying to push the subject of multiculturalism too far would actually be a hindrance if it interferes with a students participation in other groups, or worse yet, holds the child back from expressing his or her own individuality. He gives a first-hand example of one of his African-American students who was afraid to publicly admit his dislike for rap music because he felt ethnically obligated as part of his black heritage (Ryan 137). While a teacher can be a great help in providing information about other cultures, by the same note, that information can be just as harmful if it is incomplete. In order for students to be in control of their own identity, they must have some idea of how others look at these same qualities. Children must be taught to resolve inner-conflicts about their identity, so that these features that make us unique will be brought out in the open where they can be enjoyed by all instead of being hidden in fear of facing rejection from their peers. Teachers need to spend an equal amount of time developing student individuality so they don’t end up feeling obligated to their racial group more than they feel necessary to express the diversity that makes America unique.
As Harlan Cleveland points out, many countries still feel that the predominant race must be the one in power. For instance, try to imagine a Turkish leader in Germany, or anyone but a Japanese in control of Japan (Cleveland 26). Only in America is there such a diverse array of people in power from county officials all the way up to the make up of people in our Supreme Court. However, although we have made many advances culturally that other countries haven’t, we still have yet to see an African-American, Latino, or for that matter, a woman as head of our country. With increasing awareness of other cultures though, these once unheard of suggestions are making their way even closer to reality.
Another way to look at the issue is that most non-Western cultures have few achievements equal to Western culture either in the past or present (Duignan 492). The modern achievements that put America ahead of other countries are unique to America because they were developed here. Many third-world countries still practice things that we have evolved from many years ago, such as slavery, wife beatings, and planned marriages. We are also given many freedoms that are unheard of in other countries. Homosexuality is punished severely in other lands, while we have grown to realize that it is part of the genetic makeup of many people and they cannot control it.
Most immigrants come to America for a better way of life, willing to leave behind the uncivilized values of their mother countries. Instead of trying to move the country that they came from into America, immigrants need to be willing to accept the fact that America is shared by all who live here, and it is impossible to give every citizen an equal amount of attention. If we are not willing to forget some parts of our heritage in favor of a set of well rounded values, then a fully integrated America will never be possible.
There certainly is no easy answer to the problem of multicultural education. Proponents will continue to argue the benefits that unfortunately seem to be too far out of reach for our imperfect society. The hard truth is that it is impossible for our public school system to fairly cater to the hundreds of nationalities that already exist, let alone the hundreds more that are projected to arrive during the next century. In order for us to live together in the same society, we must sometimes be willing to overlook parts of our distant past in exchange for a new hope in the future. Our only chance is to continue to debate the topic in order to hope for a “middle of the road” compromise. One particularly interesting solution is that we could study the basics of how America came about in the most non-biased way possible, not concentrating on the race and sex of our forefathers as much as what they made happen, at least during the elementary and high school years. This would leave the study of individual nationalities, which are not themselves major contributing factors, for people to do at home or further down the line in their education, where they can focus on tradition and beliefs to any extent they want without fear of anyone feeling segregated.
In conclusion, in order for us to function as a whole, we need to start thinking of America in terms of a whole. With just a basic understanding of other cultures, and most importantly, the tools and background to think critically and make our own decisions not based on color, sex, religion, or national origin, but on information that we were able to accurately attain through the critical thinking skills we were taught in school, we would be better equipped to work at achieving harmony in a varied racial country.
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