American Historians Enter Multiculturalism Debate

By Debra Viadero — February 20, 1991 4 min read

A respected national group of American-history scholars has lent its voice to the increasingly bitter debate over the degree to which history courses should focus on minorities, women, and other groups whose contributions have traditionally been absent from the curriculum.

In a two-page statement approved this month by its executive board, the Organization of American Historians affirmed the importance of injecting more non-Western and feminist perspectives into the study of history in the public schools.

“Students should ... understand that history is not limited to the study of dominant political, social, and economic elites,” the historians wrote. “It also encompasses the individual and collective quests of ordinary people for a meaningful place for themselves in their families, in their communities, and in the larger world.”

At the same time, the statement adds, such studies should be based on “sound historical scholarship” and not “bad history.”

“A history that asserts or implies the inherent superiority of one race, gender, class, or region of the world over another is by definition ‘bad history,”’ it says, “and should have no place in the public schools.”

Some of the scholars who helped draft the document said last week that they hoped it would offer a more even-handed approach to the debate than the extreme viewpoints on the matter being characterized in some of the press.

“As we have seen a number of arti4cles in the news media that are describing multiculturalism as a problem, we just thought that professional historians should be heard from in the debate,” said Arnita Jones, the executive secretary of the historians’ organization, which represents 12,000 professors and researchers in American history.

Multiculturalism is “not a problem,” she said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring some excellent new scholarship to all levels of education.”

The focus of much of the current debate centers on curricula that emphasize the heritage and accomplishments of blacks. In recent years, a number of school districts have taken steps to adopt these pro grams, known as Afro-centric curricula. (See Education Week, Nov. 28, 1990.)

But the approach has prompted sharp criticism, some of it from other leading scholars of history and education. They contend Afro-centric programs and other courses of study that emphasize the accomplishments of a single ethnic group breed separatism and distort history.

Instead, these scholars say, the teaching of history should emphasize America’s common heritage of “one nation, many peoples” and focus on understanding the political and cultural institutions shared by all citizens.

“What [the historians’ group is] trying to say is it is possible to say things that neither side has been saying,” said David Thelen, editor of 4 the Journal of American History, the professional journal of the OAH, and a professor of history at Indiana University.

“The experience of living in America,” he said, “is both the experience of living in a number of groups--women, Methodists, African Americans, and others--and the experience of living with some shared institutions which everyone must make an accommodation to-- even if only to reject it.”

Another element missing from the debate, Mr. Thelen and other researchers said, has been the acknowledgment that history is a process, continually subject to change.

“There has been a lot of good scholarship [on the contributions of minority groups] over the past 10, 15, or 20 years,” said Ms. Jones of the OAH, “and we think students should have access to that.”

Some of the most prominent voices in the debate over multicultural education last week offered differing reactions to the statement.

“I support everything that’s been said,” said Asa Hilliard 3rd, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University who has helped develop Afro-centric curricula in Portland, Ore., and Atlanta. “I think this will have a good effect on clarifying the issues and suggesting ways in which the conversation ought to go.”

But Molefi Kete Asante, director of Temple University’s Center on African-American studies, said the historians did not go far enough because they themselves do not fully understand the African-American culture.

“Most historians have not taken a course or studied deeply in African- American history,” he said.

Diane Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at eachers College, Columbia University, said the OAH position was “completely consonant” with views that she, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and other prominent scholars expressed in a statement last summer that criticized the approach to multicultural education under consideration in New York State. (See Edu cation Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

“The only difference [is] that we made the point that we are a Western society,” Ms. Ravitch said. “The values that they are celebrating in this statement are Western values, but they don’t acknowledge that."Mary Frances Berry, president of the OAH and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that concurring reactions expressed by some voices on both sides of the debate might be misleading.

“My fear,” she said, “is that there are people who would say publicly they agree with us because they don’t want to argue with some of the most respected scholars in the field, and then they go on with what they’re doing.”

“What we hope,” Ms. Berry continued, “is that the people who are directly involved in making decisions about curriculum will move on and be more inclusive in their teaching.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as American Historians Enter Multiculturalism Debate