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A Multicultural Lesson

By Erich Martel — September 01, 1991 3 min read
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Last June, a prestigious advisory panel recommended that New York state change its elementary and secondary social studies curriculum to give more weight to the contributions of African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. The panel’s decision set off an angry debate, the latest chapter in a growing nationwide controversy over what has come to be called multicultural education. The following is what I believe multicultural education should be and where I think some of the participants in the controversy go wrong.

A true multicultural education integrates the achievements and experience of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans into the fabric of social studies and literature courses. It helps students—all students—understand that members of these cultural groups were, and are, an integral part of the American experience. A multicultural curriculum must also emphasize world history and geography. These subjects enable students to expand their focus to the world beyond our borders and explore both the origins of valued western institutions—such as democracy, tolerance, and scientific inquiry—and the significant developments of other cultures. In short, multi-cultural education combines a grounding in the American experience with an appreciation of the larger human experience.

Multicultural education is sometimes confused with another educational current—Afrocentrism, or African-centered education. But Afrocentrism and multicultural education are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Multicultural educators champion the inclusion of the African and African-American experience in textbooks and curricula. I agree with parents who call for something better for their children than the traditional history that paid scant attention to, or denigrated, one group’s heritage. But Afrocentrists are openly or implicitly hostile to multicultural education.

Afrocentrists reject the notion of a common American culture in which all groups take part. Instead, they argue that African-Americans have been, and are now, oppressed by a “hegemonic” and psychologically damaging Eurocentric culture from which they have been systematically excluded. African-American students must, therefore, reject that hegemonic culture and center their learning on the significant achievements of their African ancestors, who, the Afrocentrists say, include the ancient Egyptians. This will then generate self-esteem and, in turn, lead to an interest in learning. Unfortunately, no research supports the notion that studying one’s ancestors promotes self-esteem.

The weakest part of the Afrocentrists’ argument, however, is their reliance on historical assertions that have little or no scholarly support. These assertions often form the basis for curricula that Afrocentrists lobby school boards to adopt. Currently, the most influential Afrocentrist document is the African-American Baseline Essays, published by the Portland, Ore., public school district under the guidance of Asa Hilliard III, a professor of urban education at Georgia State University.

Egyptologist Frank Yurco of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago reviewed the document’s essays on ancient Egypt and, except for the basically sound piece on “Mathematics,” found them replete with errors: The authors, none of them professional Egyptologists, seemed unfamiliar with re-cent scholarship on ancient Egypt; artifacts, documents, and data were misinterpreted; and dates and dynasties were confused. The “Science and Technology” essay even endorsed such pseudoscientific concepts as the mystical powers of the pyramids and the “extraterrestrial origin of the Nile” from “water-laden micro-comets.”

There is not space here to quote extensively from Yurco’s unpublished critique, but he summed up by saying that “the blatant errors, misstatements, and fabrication of information make this curriculum unusable, in my view.” He added that the Afrocentrists were using a “history curriculum to put over a political agenda.”

The revision of old theories and paradigms is an ongoing process in the writing of history. But revisionist theories must be based on sound scholarship, and school curricula should never be based on propaganda. W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, John Hope Franklin, and other scholars helped open textbooks and curricula to the African-American experience through painstaking research. Afrocentrists advance their opinions by appealing to the emotions and disregarding the facts.

Teachers, parents, and students are justified in wanting multicultural curricula. Such curricula must be based on legitimate, documented scholarship. We must guard against replacing old ethnocentric myths with new ones.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as A Multicultural Lesson


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