Education Opinion

Thinking About Education

October 24, 1990 4 min read

The author and scholar Jacques Barzun gives his views on multicultural education in an interview in the September issue of Basic Education. Current practice, he says, is based on theory, with teaching methods poorly tested and, perhaps, ultimately divisive:

The matter of transferring one’s imagination from the scenes of what one knows of the United States (for example, of Texas or Massachusetts) to another part [of the country], that in itself is a sufficiently great effort. But think of teaching the culture of Siberia or Japan. An example: When one knows about the institutions--the automobile, the Constitution, the very names of things, which are there already in the mind--students can, with some help, begin to grasp patterns of significance. But they lack the corresponding reality of almost every other culture.

To give you an example, a friend of mine became chairman of the school board in a little town 20 miles away from New York, and being totally unaccustomed to educational matters, he frequently asked my advice and reported some events. In the high school, somebody had the boys and girls read the Sherlock Holmes stories. It isn’t very hard. It’s not a remote culture. But they had to give it up because they could not understand the cultural institutions, the factual references to life in London in the 1890’s. And apparently there were no teachers who could make the transition for them, tell them that a hansom cab was a cab which had only two wheels, or so forth. The teachers themselves were stumped.

What could they teach about African culture (as if there were only one)? The fundamental fallacy is: all this is pure abstraction as against the art of the possible. ...

I remember a program that came across my desk in which instruction in art in a school system was to include a series of two weeks of various foreign arts. African weaving was one of them, Chinese pottery, and so on. This was intended to create “global understanding.” That’s nonsense, another abstraction. Global understanding is certainly not going to arrive after turning a piece of pottery on a wheel. It’s trifling with words and ideas. Far worse, it’s trifling with lives of young people who are very bright, for the most part quite healthy, and therefore capable of studying and learning. They’re made toys, sport of these people who have no concrete imagination or practical sense. As for the notion that black children can learn only from black teachers and about black things--that is very dangerous because it really means that racism is in the ascendancy and that we’re all going to be living in groups of haggling, competing, name-calling, separatists.

But the Purdue University educator Geneva Gay, writing in the September Phi Delta Kappan’s special section on desegregation, offers multicultural education as a solution to the persisting achievement gap between white and minority students, a problem termed “third-generation segregation":

Merely tinkering with a few largely peripheral aspects of school curricula will not suffice to meet this challenge. Instead, reform must be comprehensive and reconstructive; it must redefine the very bases of how curriculum content is selected and taught. Education to combat all kinds of oppression and to foster the genuine acceptance of diversity as a critical element of a vital human community must be taught forthrightly, aggressively, and unequivocally. Cultural pluralism must become an accepted canon of American education. It must permeate all grade levels, including goals and objectives, content, learning activities, and evaluation procedures. ...

Some of the most devastating educational inequities are perpetuated not through the formal instructional programs but through the social norms, procedural rules, and cultural contexts that govern teaching and learning. These “hidden curricula” transmit to students powerful subliminal messages about how educational opportunities are allocated and socialize students into behavioral patterns that conform to the inequalities that exist in the larger society. If we are to achieve equality, we must broaden our conceptions of curriculum to include the entire culture of the school--not just subject-matter content.

Thus, third-generation curriculum desegregation should be distinguished by:

  • the development of alternative structures that reflect cultural, racial, social, gender, and ethnic pluralism;
  • the incorporation of cultural pluralism into the entire instructional infrastructure, including subject-matter content, teaching and learning strategies, goals and objectives, classroom climates, and assessment of the performance of students and teachers;
  • the equal-status treatment of the life experiences, cultures, and perspectives of culturally different groups;
  • the integration of principles of cultural pluralism into all decisions about curriculum and instruction in order to provide high-quality education for all students;
  • the necessary connections between cultural pluralism, comparability of opportunities, and the academic performance of socially and ethnically diverse learners;
  • a balance between skills to combat oppressive practices and skills to celebrate cultural pluralism in an informed fashion; and
  • the use of multiple models of humanity, culture, and accomplishment.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1990 edition of Education Week as Thinking About Education