The Value of Multicultural Curricula
In his reply to the Study Commission on Global Education, Richard Rodriguez sets "communality" of values and "uniformity" of perspective as the proper goals for American schools ("What Is an American Education?" Commentary, Sept. 9, 1987).
In stressing the importance of communality, Mr. Rodriguez mixes topics and draws erroneous conclusions from the most widespread of assimilationist "common sense" points of view.
It is wrong both to assume that one set of values is superior to any other and to try to force all people to share one outlook.
Even if total assimilation were expedient, it could not be effected. Only to a point can people drop their differences and assume new cultural identities. Most of those whose survival and success hang on such a thread will--and do--eventually become dropouts.
Culture evolves; it is dynamic. Such is the definition of ethnogenesis. American culture, like any other, is not what it was nor what it will be. As a reflection of society, schools should be places where a match can be made between the student and his world. A person should feel that society needs his gifts, not that it uses him as an interchangeable part.
An American education should be more than a rehashing of history from the European and "winners"' point of view. In suggesting that "Europe fades from memory," Mr. Rodriguez fails to recognize that the influence of Western civilization is not minimized by looking at the events again, seeing where we have told lies.
The power of Western civilization is not lost in comparing it with other civilizations, whether or not it compares favorably. The notion that Western civilization is better because it is Western, or because it is ours, is at best ethnocentric.
Mr. Rodriguez says that we "relinquish a reasonable amount of pride in what America has accomplished." He continues that "assimilation was an honorable achievement, comparable, in my mind, with opening the plains. ..." There is no doubt about the magnitude of what America has achieved against the backdrop of human history. But to say that assimilation was honorable in the way that opening the plains was honorable is a perversion of history.
In fact, the opening of the plains was not honorable but disgraceful. Americans today are not diminished by that event in their history, but they are diminished by the loss of memory of what Americans did to those who stood in their way.
Schools should teach our history and at the same time examine the morality of the choices made. We should be a nation with a conscience. Who are we if we don't know who we have been? Will we, in our schools, assimilate minorities in the same "honorable" way we conquered the West?
Education that values cultural diversity does not say that "diversity admits everything, stands for nothing," as Mr. Rodriguez puts it, but rather that a culture is not wrong because it is different.
Knowledge of other societies and customs gives students choices that may be even more meaningful to them than those offered in our society. It is possible that there are other and better ways to live than those we have grown to know and love. We might yet learn something from that imprecise mass called American "diversity."
While there is nothing wrong with a standard curriculum to promote unity, it is wrong to impose as correct a subjective curriculum teaching that the culture in power is better than any other. Even though that culture may make the rules of society and students may have to learn to play by those rules if they are to achieve success within the system, those majority values are not necessarily superior to other values that children may bring to school.
A multicultural curriculum tries, while valuing differences, to teach a fair curriculum to students with diverse backgrounds. There is no threat to society here, simply a relevant education.
To value different backgrounds is not to applaud individualism; in fact, a sense of community, a basic value of minority groups, is quite the contrary of American individualism, the "Protestant argument," as Mr. Rodriguez calls it. It may well be that the "right" holds out for an assimilationist communality, but to attribute valuing cultural diversity to the "left" and to suggest that this left speaks for the Protestant argument makes no sense. One need not be "left"-thinking to feel that people have a right to have their own point of view.
Differing points of view do not threaten American society; they are the definition of American society.
If schools are to help students arrive at "a sense of values," just who does Mr. Rodriguez suggest will decide what those values are?
Schools should teach communality, says Mr. Rodriguez, so that students will have a point of view from which they can "judge, evaluate, reject, and admire." The development of such a point of view has contributed to the narrow mentality characterizing the judgmental society in which we live. We think that we are best, that it is best to be best, and that anyone who is unlike us must be inferior.
The global-education commission was trying to address the problem of this narrow American view of the world. Mr. Rodriguez says that our children are becoming "cultural nomads" and that their "youthful cynicism" is entertaining the world. I disagree. It is not the youthful cynicism of this country that is entertaining the world, but the intolerance and global ignorance of our population. Our smug isolationism, self-satisfied pride, and ethnocentrism are negating too much of our past greatness.
I agree with Mr. Rodriguez that the primary purpose of an early education should not be "to teach diversity." Its primary purposes are to teach students that in school they will learn how to survive in our society and to solidify their feelings of worth.
Though I am not brown or Mexican, I am a Hispanic who coped with my own set of differences in growing up. While I succeeded probably as well as most within the assimilationist American system, I don't advocate that schools today do to children what was done to me and many others. Schools should offer acceptance and nurturing. They should be places where students feel free to learn and grow, not places where some must every day make an effort not to let anyone know they're different.
I am pleased that Mr. Rodriguez identifies so closely with our founding fathers, but I am not so sure that those forward-thinking gentlemen would agree with his argument that we contain and restrict diversity. After all, those men fled the intolerance of Europe. My reading of our history is that they would be more likely to agree that nonjudgmental diversity is our strength as a nation.
Vol. 7, Issue 10, Page 21