Issue of Multiculturalism Dominates Standards Debate

By Debra Viadero — April 22, 1992 5 min read
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All of the groups that attended last week’s meeting have been asked to submit position papers to the national council by April 24. The council, consisting mainly of historians and educators from diverse historical disciplines, will review those comments at its May meeting.

When Nguyen Minh Chau’s son was growing up, she says, he had a “terrible time’’ with history classes in school.

The reason, suggests Ms. Chau, a Vietnamese immigrant, was that her son saw few Asians like himself in the history books. And the scant information he found about his culture, she adds, was often mistaken or distorted.

“Students in schools need to know other people than those traditionally found in the textbooks,’' Ms. Chau argued at a meeting here this month of the National Forum for History Standards.

Her remarks underscore one of the most central--and contentious--issues facing educators and historians as they seek for the first time to develop national standards for what students should know and be able to do in history. As the United States becomes increasingly diverse and history grows day by day, educators and historians must decide whose stories to tell and how much time to devote to them.

“That is the most difficult job of all,’' said Charlotte Crabtree, co-director of the National Center for History in the Schools, which is coordinating the national standards-setting effort.

The issue of multicultural education in history dominated the discussion at the April 10 meeting of the forum. The group, comprising a wide range of educators and ethnic and religious-education groups, was formed to provide recommendations to the National Council on History Standards as it develops standards. (See Education Week, March 4, 1992.)

The wide range of viewpoints expressed by the members of the forum on multicultural education and other issues demonstrated some of the fractiousness that characterizes the field of social-studies education nationwide.

‘Balkanizing America’

Like Ms. Chau, representatives of African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic education groups at the meeting said that the traditional history curriculum often gives their ethnic groups’ contributions short shrift or ignores them altogether.

“There is a battle raging in public schools across the nation,’' said Samuel Banks, the director of instructional-support services for the Baltimore City Public Schools and a member of the national council. “People are saying, ‘Let’s go back to the core values and curriculum,’ which have historically not included people like me who are black, or Chau, who is Asian.’'

While most forum participants said they agreed on the need to bring more of a multicultural approach to history, a few raised concerns about how far those efforts should go. They warned that some forms of multicultural education, such as ethnocentric studies, could promote disunity in American society.

“I fear the so-called multicultural agenda in history will serve to Balkanize America,’' said Steven Remy, a staff assistant in the office of education with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based public-policy think tank. He attended the meeting as an observer.

What is most important to emphasize in history studies, said Mr. Remy and others, are the democratic principles that bind the nation together.

The fear that multicultural education will cause divisiveness was criticized, however, by some other participants at the meeting as “balderdash’’ or a “red herring.’'

“Yes, there are folks who want separate courses and separate programs,’' countered Mary Hatwood Futrell, the former president of the National Education Association and currently a consultant to the Quality Education for Minorities Network. “What we really want is to include people.’'

“We’re not trying to take away the principles and values that define America,’' she continued. “We’re trying to make it better.’'

Exploring ‘Every Rivulet’

The effort to make history more inclusive is complicated, however, by growing demands on schools’ instructional time from a wide range of disciplines, said Ivan Gluckman, the general counsel to the National School Boards Association.

“If it’s wrong to explore the mainstream of the majority, it may not be feasible to explore every rivulet of every ethnic group in America,’' he said. He argued for a thematic approach to teaching history that would avoid concentrating on “names, dates, and places.’'

Those attending the forum also expressed some disagreement over the age at which some students should be expected to gain a grounding in history. The National Council on Education Standards and Testing has recommended a national system of examinations for students in grades 4, 8, and 12. By 4th grade, however, few students have learned about slavery, the Civil War, or other watershed points of American history. Some groups, such as the National Council for the Social Studies, have argued for beginning national testing in later grades.

“We are not talking about preparing Ph.D.'s in history,’' said Frances Haley, the executive director of N.C.S.S. “These people are going to be 18 when they leave us.’'

Other educators at the meeting argued, however, that children can grasp well-taught history at earlier ages than was once thought. One goal of their efforts, they said, should be to prod schools to start teaching history earlier.

Competing tensions in the school curriculum between world history and American history also surfaced at the forum. Some forum members said the schools had set up a “false dichotomy’’ between the two fields and argued for an approach to teaching the subject that would place American history under the umbrella of world history and treat all of history as “one seamless fabric.’'

In its effort to include such a wide range of education voices, however, the standards-setting effort had left out the voice of “average Americans,’' said Chester E. Finn Jr., the director of Vanderbilt University’s Educational Excellence Network.

“If they decide it doesn’t ring true,’' he said. “It isn’t worth the effort.’'

Ms. Crabtree said the National PTA had been invited to the meeting but was unable to send a representative.

All of the groups that attended last week’s meeting have been asked to submit position papers to the national council by April 24. The council, consisting mainly of historians and educators from diverse historical disciplines, will review those comments at its May meeting.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Issue of Multiculturalism Dominates Standards Debate


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