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New York's 'Multicultural' Plans Draw Fire From Two Sides

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A bitter battle is shaping up this summer over the already troubled efforts to revise New York State's public-school curriculum to focus more attention on minorities and their cultures.

Although Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol was not expected to announce until late last week the appointment of a panel to develop a ''multicultural" history curriculum for high-school students, critics--including some of the country's most distinguished historians--have already begun attacking the effort.

Some of the sharpest and most recent criticism came in a lawsuit filed last month by the families of eight black school children in New York City. They claim that school officials are taking too long to provide their children with a curriculum reflecting their own cultural and historical heritage.

And their lawsuit, which lawyers said may be the first of its kind in the nation, asks the court to force school officials to put such a curriculum in place immediately in New York City's public schools.

The court case followed by several weeks a barrage of criticism of a different kind from an ad hoc committee of nationally prominent historians and other scholars. In a statement published in June in the newspaper Newsday, the scholars charged state officials with "politicizing" history by attempting to distill it through the eyes of various ethnic groups. (See text, page 38.) They noted, in particular, that the state's process for revising the curriculum has, so far, left little room for involvement by historians.

"We condemn the reduction of history to ethnic cheerleading on the demand of pressure groups," read the statement, which was written by Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and signed by 24 other scholars. Ms. Ravitch is an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Mr. Schlesinger is an author and history professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

For their part, New York State school officials said they intend to ''steer more toward the middle" of the debate as they embark this year on what could be a two-year-long process of revising the content of the classes taken by schoolchildren in the state.

Fanning the Flames

At the root of the furor is a controversial 1989 report issued by a task force appointed by Mr. Sobol. In the report, "A Curriculum of Inclusion," the Commissioner's Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence charged that blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans have been the victims of "intellectual and educational oppression" perpetuated in the state through curricular materials that show "a systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives."

The report was viewed as inflammatory by many commentators. Mr. Sobol, in an effort to distance himself from the report, did not ask the state school board to endorse it.

The New York State Board of Regents did, however, approve several of the report's recommendations in February when it authorized the revision of the state's public-school curriculum. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

The scholars, in their published statement, called the task-force report a "polemical document" that sought to undermine the integrity of history as an intellectual discipline.

"It saw history rather as a form of social and psychological therapy whose function is to raise the self-esteem of children from minority groups," they wrote.

They also expressed concern about the lack of participation by historians in the state's curriculum-revision efforts. Of the 20 or 21 appointments scheduled to be made last week to the state panel that would revamp the history curriculum, they noted, only six to eight were set aside for scholars distributed among seven fields of study.

"The panel might well end up with one historian," they wrote.

"If you're going to revise a chemistry curriculum, it's not unreasonable to assume you would get a few chemists on it," said Mr. Schlesinger, whose books on Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy have attracted a wide audience. "What I've found is a growing concern among a lot of historians about this."

The signers also included Kenneth B. Clark, the educator and psychologist whose work influenced the development of school desegregation in this country.

The group, known as the Committee of Scholars in Defense of History, has vowed to monitor the revision process and assess the projected changes in the teaching of American and world history.

'Glaring Gaps'

State school officials, in response, contend they have no intention of "diluting the intellectual integrity of the state's curriculum."

"Nonetheless, we believe there are omissions and glaring gaps in that curriculum that can be improved," said Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the state education department. Such changes can be made, he added, in a way that is both "useful and intellectually sound."

Among some of New York City's black parents and community groups, however, the task-force report represented a different kind of call to action, according to Joseph Fleming, the lawyer representing the group of parents suing to bring about a multicultural curriculum.

"Members of community groups and parents have long been concerned about the poor state of education in this city," he said. "Not until that report did they begin to focus on a specific remedy."

The effort was helped along, he added, by a local radio personality, Bob Law, who promoted the idea of a class-action lawsuit in talks to community groups.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for Manhattan, names U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, Mr. Sobol, New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, and the city school board. It maintains that the curriculum used in the city's public schools is discriminatory under federal civil-rights laws because it ignores the contributions of blacks in virtually every subject area.

As a result of such omissions, the families contend, their children's sense of self-worth has suffered. They allege that the lack of a multicultural curriculum has caused, among other problems, the disproportionately high unemployment, dropout, and crime rates among black youths in the city.

"You can give us Thomas Edison, but also give us the person who developed the filament for the lightbulb--an African-American named Lewis Latimer," said David Powell, a father of two public-school students joining in the lawsuit. "My son told me he doesn't like history because he doesn't see anything but white people."

To remedy such imbalances, the families have asked the court to force school officials to replace the curriculum immediately with one that reflects the contributions and cultures of non-whites.

"Mr. Sobol has indicated that the curriculum-revision process could take two or three years," Mr. Fleming said. "Something needs to be done to move things along now."

State and city school officials pointed out that they are already moving in that direction. Although they declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, city school officials said they have, in recent years, promoted a number of "multicultural" educational programs and pressed publishers for textbooks that better reflect the contributions of many ethnic groups.

"We have it [multicultural studies] in small pockets but not in the organized way you need to have it," Gwendolyn Baker, the new president of the New York City Board of Education said in a television interview last month. "The school system has not really addressed the issue because of difficulties in the way you do it."

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