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N.Y. Regents Weigh Report on 'Multicultural' Curriculum

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The New York State Board of Regents last Thursday approved a set of recommendations emerging from a controversial plan for revising the state's social-studies curricula that has reignited a national debate over the extent to which public-school curricula should focus on nonwhite cultures.

The recommendations were written by State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol. They build on the conclusions of "One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence," a controversial report drawn up by a state panel of educators and distinguished scholars.

That 97-page report, released in June, finds fault with the way nonwhite cultures are commonly portrayed in history and social-studies courses today. History, it notes, is often taught from the viewpoint of white males. Accounts of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America, for example, often do not explore what the advent of Europeans on this continent meant to the American Indians already living here.

Similarly, much of the language used in classrooms is insensitive to minority ethnic and cultural groups, the report notes.

In place of that curriculum, the panel recommends a new plan for teaching the social studies in all grades that includes more examples from nonwhite cultures and forces students to look critically at issues from a multitude of perspectives.

The report recommends that social-studies classes should teach fewer topics in greater depth and include discussions of the everyday lives of common people in order to help students understand history "within the context of time and place."

"Social studies should seek to make clear not only the common concerns, achievements, and aspirations that are the source of national unity," according to the report, "but also the distinctive historical roles, traditions and contributions of the different peoples who together have struggled to create the United States."

'A Moderate' Stance?

The tone of the report is less strident than that of a similar document issued in 1989 by another task force appointed by Mr. Sobol. That report, called "A Curriculum of Inclusion," describes "African American, Asian Americans, Puerto Rican/Latinos, and Native Americans" as "victims of intellectual and educational oppression" stemming from a "systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives" in New York's public-school curriculum.

That report, never formally adopted by the regents, led to the formation last summer of the current, 24-member task force. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

However, despite the "moderate, common-sense position" Mr. Sobol says it advocates, the new report has been at the center of raging debate this summer over its emphasis on greater inclusion of nonwhite cultures and its perceived lack of attention to the nation's common cultural heritage.

The report was the focus of a cover story in Time magazine this month and has been the target of attacks by newspaper columnists and prestigious scholars. The chairman of the state's Republican party called it "a divisive, far out, liberal sham."

Even Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who sought to calm the debate by releasing a five-page statement pointing out passages in the report favoring the teaching of common values, has said sections of the report "tilt toward factionalism."

"This issue could be bigger than the Pledge of Allegiance," he reportedly said two days after release of the report in June. He referred to an issue that dogged Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in his unsuccessful bid for the Presidency in 1988.

Growing Pressures

At the heart of the debate are growing pressures across the nation brought on by the increasing ethnic diversity of the population.

Such controversies have been loudest in New York and California, two large states with diverse population mixes. By the year 2000, according to one estimate, one out of three New Yorkers, for example, will be a member of a minority group.

"The United States is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is very unsettling to many people," said J. Jorge Klor de Alva, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and a member of the curriculum panel. "Americans no longer look like the Americans you grew up thinking Americans should look like."

Critics of the report contend its plan for teaching social studies will heighten the tensions brought on by the new cultural diversity.

"The underlying philosophy of the report, as I read it, is that ethnicity is the defining experience for most Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, that the division into ethnic groups establishes the basic structure of American society, and that a main objective of public education should be the protection, strengthening, celebration, and perpetuation of ethnic origins and identities," wrote the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a dissent appended to the report. Mr. Schlesinger was a consultant to the committee.

He continued, "What kind of nation will we have if we press further down the road to cultural separatism and ethnic fragmentation, if we institutionalize the classification of our citizens by ethnic and racial criteria and if we abandon our historic commitment to an American identity?"

Kenneth T. Jackson, in another dissenting comment, criticized the report for "disparaging Anglo conformity."

"I would argue that it is politically and intellectually unwise for us to attack the traditions, customs, and values which attracted immigrants to these shores in the first place," wrote Mr. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and Social Sciences at Columbia University.

Some of those criticisms and much of the media coverage surrounding the release of the report have been the result of "much misunderstanding and misrepresentation," he wrote.

Committee members complained that press accounts have tended to focus on specific recommendations in the report while missing the overall message. One such example is a recommendation by the panel that slaves be referred to in the social-studies curriculum as "enslaved persons''--a change intended to point out that slavery is not an occupation such as gardener or cook.

Changing the Terms

The report also recommends replacing "the Far East" with "East Asia" and advocates that teachers point out to children that minorities "are more accurately described as the world's majorities."

"I do not understand the notoriety which has attached to [that] suggestion," Mr. Sobol wrote. "After all, we have grown attached to saying "people" rather than "mankind" and to referring to "children with handicapping conditions" rather than to "handicapped children."

"What I propose is a curriculum which will tell more of the truth about more of our history to all of our children," he told the regents last Thursday night. "It is a curriculum based on fact, faithful to historical proportion and grounded in the democratic and moral values of our common American culture."

"Those don't sound like very far-out goals to me," he said.

Mr. Sobol's recommendations to the regents embrace virtually all of the basic principles outlined in the report and incorporate some of its criticisms as well. They place slightly greater emphasis on the need, also mentioned in the panel's report, to teach a common cultural and moral heritage.

"Our unity and diversity are not opposites," he wrote. "Both should be taught."

Nathan Glazer, a panel member and professor of education in sociology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the report and the commissioner's recommendations differ primarily in emphasis.

Mr. Sobol's recommendations "will introduce a kind of balance in the discussion that is emerging," he said. Mr. Glazer, although signing onto the panel report, had cautioned against a tendency he found in it to view culture as "something permanent and unchanging." Mr. Sobol noted that concern in his recommendations to the regents.

An unanswered question in all of the reports and recommendations, according to some panel members, is how teachers, who are often unschooled in history and social sciences, will be able to sort out what is true from what is rhetoric in their efforts to include multiple perspectives.

To ease that problem, the panel and Mr. Sobol call for measures designed to enhance both the preservice and inservice training in history and social studies for teachers of those subjects.

The report also recommends changes in the way the state assesses students' progress in the social studies and calls for more support for "up to date" instructional materials that present more balanced treatment of social studies.

The curriculum revision called for in all of the recommendations would focus on the state's social-studies syllabuses, which are considered to carry some influence in the state. Mr. Sobol recommended that the board appoint a work group, assisted by the state education department and advised by the panel, to undertake the task of revising those documents. Panel members estimate the process could take two or more years.

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