Battle Over Multicultural Education Rises in Intensity

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Two decades after educators and politicians began calling on schools to teach more about the contributions of blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups long absent from the curriculum, the debate over how best to do that is reaching new--and sometimes bitter--levels of intensity in schools across the country.

In California, the state school board came under attack last month for perceived shortcomings in new history textbooks intended to focus more attention on minority and religious groups.

The books adopted by the board include, among other material intended to recognize diversity, rich detail about the African kingdoms of Kush, Mali, Zimbabwe, and Ghana, from which many Africans were kidnapped and enslaved. And two 5th-grade textbooks in the series offer 35 pages about American Indians and their culture, including an account of 19th-century issues told from an Indian perspective.

But African Americans, American Indians, Chinese Americans, Hispanics, Moslems, and Jews, among others, argued that the books had not gone far enough in portraying their cultures. They said the texts were rife with glaring omissions, cultural stereotypes, and misrepresentations of their histories.

A similar battle erupted recently in New York State, where a committee of educators and scholars has been formed to recommend ways to revamp that state's history curriculum to better reflect minority perspectives.

The effort was criticized last summer by both black community leaders, who say the state is not moving fast enough to make those changes, and by nationally prominent scholars, who fear state officials may be reducing history to "ethnic cheerleading on the demand of pressure groups."

Adding to the sharpness of such debate, a growing number of school districts are putting in place curricula that emphasize the contributions of Africa and black Americans in every major subject area. Those efforts, making up what is known as the "Afro-centric" education movement, have provided fodder in recent months for disputes in scholarly journals and newspaper editorial pages over whether that strategy distorts history and promotes a new form of racial intolerance.

School districts in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Washington, and other cities are in various stages of adopting Afro-centric programs inspired, in part, by a curriculum pioneered in the predominantly white Portland, Ore., school system. (See related story, page 12.)

Proponents contend Afro-centric programs are needed because existing curricula are overwhelmingly white and European in outlook and content, reinforcing racial insensitivity among whites and leaving black children feeling inferior and disconnected from their studies.

"The fundamental fact is that what many people in the African-American community are witnessing are African-American children whose loss of identification has created individuals who are not rooted in historical values," said Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of the African-American Studies Department at Temple University.

"In a sense," he said, the so-called Euro-centric curriculum commonly used in schools is "killing our children, killing their minds."

Such views remain hotly contested. But there is broad agreement among educators that teaching about non-Western cultures merits a more prominent place in American schooling.

"I think there is a strong consensus in this country that history has not included enough examples of the variety of groups that make up this country; that does not seem to be controversial," said Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction in California.

"The real issue on campus and in the classroom," the education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "is not whether there will be multiculturalism, but what kind of multiculturalism will there be?"

According to a number of experts, such conflicts are emerging now, in part, because many educators have never before undertaken serious efforts to make education multicultural.

Apart from a few magnet multicultural schools scattered around the country, the standard response to the calls in the 1960's and 1970's for more teaching about non-Western cultures has been for schools to set aside elective courses in those subjects or designate special periods of time, such as "Black History Month," to talk about the contributions of particular ethnic or racial groups.

James Banks, a University of Washington professor of education who specializes in multicultural education, jokingly calls this strategy "tepees and chitlins."

He said the problem with such "additive" approaches to multicultural education is that students "see ethnic issues and events primarily as an addition to the curriculum, and consequently as an appendage to the main story of the development of the nation and to the core curriculum."

In contrast, said Thomas Sobol, commissioner of education in New York State, some of the efforts now taking place in states such as his are "more serious and thoroughgoing."

"What we want to do," he said, "is to weave multicultural perspectives into the entire fabric of the American story."

Mr. Sobol and others said an impetus for many such efforts has been simple demographics. By the year 2020, demographers predict, 46 percent of the nation's schoolchildren will be children of color. The population scales have already begun to tilt in the most populous state, California, where minority children now constitute a majority of the public-school population. And new immigration-policy revisions signed into law this month may tip the balance further, some experts say. (See Education Week, Nov. 14, 1990.)

The growing interest in multicultural education, suggested Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "has less to do with substantive debate than simply the fact that a number of districts are confronting the issue as they confront changing populations."

"I would say this should be one of the top issues we are facing in our country," added Mary Hatwood Futrell, former president of the National Education Association.

"If we are going to be able to compete as a multicultural society," continued Ms. Futrell, who is researching multicultural education as a consultant to the Quality Education for Minorities Network, "we are going to have to learn to live together as a multicultural society."

No 'Melting Pot'

In principle, virtually all experts who have studied, advocated, and criticized the various forms of multicultural education taking shape in this country agree on one point: Such education should provide students with a fuller, more balanced truth about their own history and culture than they have had up to now.

From there, however, opinions diverge sharply.

One school of thought, characterized as separatist or "ethnocentric'' by some, contends that multicultural education should tell a story through the eyes of a particular ethnic group. Afro-centrists, for example, say the curriculum should be "centered" around the cultural heritage of the black child.

"We're recognizing that most educational programs use a European lens to view the world," said Carolyn M. Leonard, coordinator of the Portland district's program. "We're saying, 'I'm using another lens to view the world, and my way of looking at it is different than yours."'

The traditional, pluralist approach, in contrast, maintains that multicultural education should stress the commonalities of many peoples and talk about their differences as well.

"The pluralists say, in effect, 'American culture belongs to us, all of us; the U.S. is us, and we remake it in every generation,"' Ms. Ravitch, who is an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote in the journal American Scholar.

"Ethnocentrism is not multicultural education," Ms. Ravitch added in an interview. "It's the opposite."

At the heart of those widely divergent views, educators and scholars say, lies a schism in American society over how to deal with its own increasingly diverse nature.

"The reason this has become controversial is America has become unclear about what our common interests are," Mr. Boyer said. "We've become less secure about ourselves as a common culture."

"For a long time," Mr. Sobol of New York added, "the dominant attitude was the attitude of the melting pot."

"Now there's a competing ethic of cultural pluralism, saying, 'Yes, we're all one people, but we do not necessarily divest ourselves of our ethnic origin,"' he added. "I think that attitude changed in part because a lot of people of color weren't permitted to melt because their appearances set them aside from others."

While the separatist or ethnic-studies approach is meant to embrace a number of ethnic groups, it is talked about most often in relation to Afro-centric curricula.

In their most commonly envisioned form, Afro-centric programs are embodied by the model used in the Portland public schools since 1989. School officials in the Oregon city commissioned scholars to write "baseline essays" on the contributions of Africa and American blacks in six fields of study: art, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and music. Teachers are now expected to "infuse" that information throughout their teaching.

Similar essays will be developed over the next few years on Hispanics, American Indians, Asians, and Pacific Islanders.

In a more drastic approach to Afro-centric instruction, the Milwaukee school board voted this fall to create two separate schools to cater to the academic and social needs of black males.

While not technically off-limits to whites and females, the magnet programs are expected to attract black males. The new "African-American immersion" schools plan to offer an Afro-centric curriculum, as well as extended school time for counseling on such topics as entrepreneurship and male sexual responsibility.

Mr. Asante of Temple University and other supporters of Afro-centric education said they are hoping a byproduct of such efforts will be to improve the lagging academic achievement of black students.

That black children are faring poorly in the public schools is clear. According to the Children's Defense Fund, black children begin school only slightly behind their white classmates. But, by the 3rd grade, they have slipped six months behind. By the 6th grade, they are a full year behind. And, by the 12th grade, they have fallen more than three years behind.

Whether learning about their own culture will close that gap, however, is an open question.

Little research exists on the subject, apart from studies suggesting black college students tend to achieve better in historically black colleges and universities, according to Asa G. Hilliard 3rd, a pioneer of Afro-centric education and the Fuller E. Calloway professsor at Georgia State University.

"What's happening is that we've got to the point that people are willing to try anything now that looks like it might have promise," said Faheen Ashanti, a counseling psychologist at North Carolina State University who has been studying the effects of Afro-centric curricula on black youths.

Mr. Ashanti is among those who believe that Afro-centric studies hold out that promise. He has been testing that hypothesis over the past five years by providing yearlong classes on Africa and African Americans to 157 black college students. At the end of their year of study, he said, the students' grades in all subjects had improved by an average of one letter grade. (See Education Week, Nov. 14, 1990.)

Even without such academic gains, Mr. Ashanti and other say, black students who know their culture will begin to take pride in themselves.

"If [critics of Afro-centrism] could see some of the changes we are seeing in hundreds of black youths--their growth in self-esteem and self-worth--they would be convinced," said Matthew W. Prophet Jr., superintendent of schools in Portland.

But the underlying force driving the Afro-centric movement, said Mr. Hilliard and others, has been the appearance over the past few years of a new body of scholarship by black authors on the African-American cultural heritage.

A central tenet of much of that work holds that ancient Egypt was a black African society. And the failure to treat Egypt in that context, those authors maintain, has been the result of intentional bias on the part of white scholars.

"Anything they could do to defame Africa and African sources, they did," Mr. Asante said.

The literature further attributes to the Egyptians the origins of modern medicine, mathematics, ancient philosophy, and even aeronautics. It notes, for example, that Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras studied in Egypt.

"Old and new research on Africa and its place in human history has proved that Africa is the birthplace of mankind and was for centuries in the forefront of human progress," John Henrik Clarke, professor emeritus of African World History at Hunter College of the City University of New York, wrote in Portland's baseline essay on social studies.

A number of Egyptologists, however, disagree. They contend Egypt was a mixed-race society. Moreover, they say, the concept of race was irrelevant to Egyptians, who freely mixed with other cultures and ethnic groups.

They also contend that many of the claims attributed to the Egyptians have been inflated--and that some are outright false.

"The revisionists who advocate these views are doing a vast disservice to the students who receive their views," wrote Frank J. Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Chicago Field Museum, in a letter to a District of Columbia teacher who had sought his guidance on the subject.

"The field of black history was, until recently, shamefully neglected, and much of what was written was incomplete and biased, " acknowledged the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., another leading critic of the ethnocentric approach.

"But the notion that Africa was source of everything good and Europe was the source of everything evil is not history at all, but rhetoric," he said.

Equally disturbing to Mr. Schlesinger and others is the accusatory tone running through the material on the subject. The Portland essay on art, for example, states: "The malicious misrepresentation of African society and people was to support the enormous profitability of slavery upon which the entire American agricultural economy depended."

And, while not specifically advocating an Afro-centrist approach, a report issued last year by a New York State task force looking at minority education in that state's schools describes "African Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans" as "victims of an intellectual and educational oppression" stemming from a "systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives" in New York's public-school curriculum. The report was never formally adopted by the state school board, though many of its recommendations were.

"The underlying tone of the materials is that, again and again, people of color have been underrepresented and underappreciated and these imbalances have been intentional," observed Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Does this do anything to bring people together?"' Ms. Ravitch said. "The great tragedy of segregation is that it prevented us from knowing who the other person was."

Critics of Afro-centrism and other ethnocentric approaches to multicultural education say they are beginning to wonder whether it is even possible to tell everyone's story. Some have even jokingly speculated that students would have to use a wheelbarrow to cart around the textbooks resulting from such efforts. Already, one 8th-grade history textbook approved--and criticized for making important omissions--in California is 966 pages long.

But ethnic-studies supporters dismiss such arguments.

"Does it take longer to tell the truth?" Mr. Hilliard asked.

Representatives from all camps, meanwhile, are expressing concern that the debate over the varying approaches to multicultural education has taken on an increasingly divisive, and sometimes personal, cast.

Participants who attended a national conference in Atlanta this month on Afro-centric education programs noted, for example, that speakers there repeatedly referred to Ms. Ravitch, a leading critic of the Afro-centric education movement, as "Miss Daisy," referring to the movie in which an elderly Jewish widow becomes friends with her black chauffeur.

And Leonard Jeffries, chairman of the department of black studies at City College of New York, told the gathering that Europeans, whom he calls "ice people," brought the world "domination, destruction, and death."

Educators interviewed agreed that such bitterness, along with what some experts refer to as the "demographic imperative" for multicultural education, could keep the debate alive for years to come.

"I think the debate can and must be resolved," Mr. Boyer said, "or else we're going to see schools become politicized and, in the process, do violence to our children."

Vol. 10, Issue 13

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