In June, the New York State Department of Education made public a report by a panel of scholars and educators, calling for a revision of the state’s public-school curriculum to better reflect racial and ethnic diversity. Although there were divisions among panel members, on the whole it went much better this time than it did last time. It was in the summer of 1989 that a panel of minority educators and activists, also appointed by the state education department, issued “A Curriculum of Inclusion,” which began with these words: “African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European-American world for centuries.” This report was quickly denounced in newspaper editorials and columns and in television commentaries across the country.
“A Curriculum of Inclusion” was one of the opening salvos in the debate over multicultural education that has dominated the education scene in the ensuing two years. At first glance, multicultural education seems deceptively appealing: The curriculum, both at the secondary and college levels, is too “Eurocentric,” too concerned with the European origins of American ideas, traditions, and people. Multiculturalists claim that the number of non-European Americans is increasing and that it is wrong to impose an alien European culture and heritage upon their children in the public schools. These children deserve a curriculum of their own culture and heritage.
Those who make these demands are ignoring some basic facts about American history and society. America has always been a multicultural society composed of diverse peoples who, willingly or not, left different cultures all over the world to come here. These people all made contributions to American history and culture. But the reality is that America has shaped its immigrants more than it has been shaped by them. The institution that has had the greatest role in that shaping has been the public school system. Public schools are the most common shared experience for most Americans, and the school system has been the key to the Americanization process. Its mission has been to preserve and transmit the common American culture to each generation of young Americans.
Many multiculturalists, historians, and educators reject the idea of a common American heritage. Yet, it is what has been taught to public-school students for generations--the story of how this country came to be; the people who came here willingly at great risk and sacrifice for a new life, and those who came here unwillingly as slaves; the people who made outstanding contributions to all areas of that society; the great domestic and foreign struggles and events. Perhaps the most important part of that story is the uniqueness of America. Unlike other countries, it was and still is an experiment; America and its institutions were deliberately “invented” and often “re-invented” from time to time in an effort to get it right. Certainly America has had its defects, its mistakes, and, some would even claim, its crimes, but being American means being committed to keep trying to “get it right.” Public schools are traditionally where young people, native and immigrant, learn what it means to be an American.
The multiculturalists are mistaken when they refer to Eurocentric culture or the white man’s culture in the public-school curriculum as something alien to them. All children in the public schools, white, black, brown, or whatever color, have an equal claim to the American heritage simply by virtue of the fact that they are Americans. Certainly most of the American heritage derives from Europe because that’s where the majority of people who settled this country came from. The early leaders were either educated there or received an education here patterned upon European education. It was therefore no accident, but neither was it a conspiracy, that our ideas and institutions derive from Europe. At the same time, in recent public-school curricula and textbooks, no secret is made of the fact that early Europeans were influenced by cultures to the east and south. Multiculturalists also make a mistake with their concern about the sources of the American heritage from a quantitative point of view. Obviously, the many different groups in America have not all contributed equally, but that does not diminish their right to an equal claim to the heritage.
This is what the Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez meant when he said: “I read the writings of 18th-century men who powdered their wigs and kept slaves because they were the men who shaped the country that shapes my life. I am brown and of Mexican ancestry .... I claim Thomas Jefferson as a cultural forefather.”
This is what the black author Maya Angelou meant when she wrote of an incident when, as a young child, she had to give a recitation to her church congregation. She chose Portia’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice” and later observed, “I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman. This is the role of art in life.”
The fallacy of the multicultural lists here is that they do not separate an idea or a work from its creator. It has long been a truism that the finest of art and learning is that which transcends “race, class, and gender,” so that it touches everyone and they can identify with it regardless of their background.
We have already had experience with the direction the multiculturalists want to take. In the 1960’s, as the civil-rights movement gathered momentum, one of the issues was the missing black presence in the school curricula and textbooks. Other groups quickly echoed this complaint. Bernard Gifford, former deputy schools chancellor of New York City, has described his experience in trying to develop a history curriculum for the New York City schools that would satisfy the growing demands from different groups for inclusion: “We got a chapter on how blacks were systematically exploited by whites, a chapter on how Puerto Ricans were systematically exploited by whites, a chapter on how the Irish were systematically exploited by Germans, and so on. What we could not get was a summary chapter that said what held us together.’'
The path toward anything resembling comprehensive multicultural representation in the school curriculum is a dead end. Once you embark in that direction, more and more groups demand inclusion and the enterprise is doomed to defeat. More important is that fact that this approach is looking at the problem through the wrong end of the microscope. The various groups in America did not come here to bring and continue their old culture. America is not some gigantic Ellis Island in which a multitude of people are thrown together, each group to look out for itself and to carry on in its own way. Recent interracial and inter-ethnic strife in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Canada, and the Third World should be lesson enough as to the consequences of the failure to get diverse people in a country to put national unity ahead of group interests.
Past experience has demonstrated that too often, programs designed for racial, ethnic, or gender identity end up setting one group against another. Students should be in public school classrooms as Americans, not African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Anglo-Americans, or any other type of what Teddy Roosevelt denounced as “hyphenated Americans.” The proper function of the public schools should be to reveal to each student what he has in common with the other students in the classroom--that he is an American and that he is there to participate in the legacy of the common American heritage, as generations of students before him have.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as Multicultural Perspectives