Multicultural Perspectives: Cultural Interdependence And 'Learner-Centrism'

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The multicultural debate has generated bitter polemics within the educational community in which each side caricatures the positions taken by the other, or seizes on the most extreme formulations of the other in order to denigrate the wider position. With complex ideas, it's best to examine particular formulations and practices, rather than to argue with or blindly support slogans unhooked from any reality.

"One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence," a report of the New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee, manages a formulation of the concept of multicultural education that is likely not only to find wide acceptance among educators but to stimulate alterations in curriculum and teaching, and in the ways we assess students.

The committee, which included historians and practicing social- studies teachers, has accomplished this in one brilliant stroke by shifting the discussion from a crassly political emphasis to a more sophisticated educational one. The committee's conception of multicultural social-studies education is neither Afrocentric nor Eurocentric. It is learner-centric. The question is not "Whose canon to teach?" but "What competencies must students demonstrate in order to deal intelligently with the complexities of history and of contemporary society?" The committee wants to develop "multiple perspectives" in all students, helping them see historical and contemporary realities from a variety of viewpoints, helping them hear the voices of those who have previously been neglected in high-school history texts, helping them see that their own parochialism is not universal truth.

What critics like Arthur Schlesinger and Diane Ravitch should take note of is that this particular conception of multiculturalism allies it with the best in the Western tradition of liberal education. Listen to John Stuart Mill, in his inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews, the quintessential 19th- century formulation of the purposes and practices of a liberal education:

"Look at a youth who has never been out of his family circle: He never dreams of any other opinions or ways of thinking than those he has been bred up in; or if he has heard of any such, attributes them to some moral defect or inferiority of nature or of education. What the notions and habits of a single family are to a boy who has had no intercourse beyond it, the notions and habits of his own country are to him who is ignorant of any other .... But since we cannot divest ourselves of preconceived notions, there is no known means of eliminating their influence but by frequently using different-colored glasses of other people: and those of other nations, as the most different are the best."

Instead of multicultural education being seen as a threat to the tradition of liberal education in the West, as it so often is, in the committee's formulation, it becomes an extension of that tradition. Defenders of liberal education over the years have offered different subjects as candidates for fulfilling its purposes. Mill, for example, in the argument quoted, was defending the teaching of ancient Greek language and of Greek culture for its capacities to free the individual from worshiping the idols of the tribe. The genius of a liberal education has resided not in its claims about the role of different subject areas, or texts within those subjects, but in its formulation of liberating educational purposes and in its insistence on the connection between those purposes and the ways in which subjects and texts are taught.

This document picks up on that tradition, insisting on the central role of the teacher and the approaches she takes to her subject matter. It identifies with John Dewey, with a number of current reform initiatives, and with more recent research on human cognition and learning in the approach it takes. The report points out the need to seek organizing principles and to sacrifice coverage of outlandish amounts of information for in-depth analysis of exemplary issues, and it calls for attention to developing the tools of inquiry in all young people.

The writers of the report, as much as they reflect theoretical ideas about educational purpose which have been a part of the discourse about teaching and learning since before Dewey, also reflect recent changes in this country brought about by the civil-rights movement and by more- inclusive immigration laws enacted in the 1960's. Contemporary events have created new perspectives affecting educational policy. The report is a particularly thoughtful expression of and response to the new climate created by these events. It will not come as an idea from out of the theoretical blue to wise teachers and curriculum-makers who are already working within this climate.

Attached to the report are papers by individual committee members that reflect the debate on the committee. Some of these criticisms miss the thrust of the main report. They argue, it seems to us, not with the report but with less sophisticated versions of multiculturalism. They fault the report for sacrificing the "unum"to the "pluribus." We find in the report an effort to get beyond the oppositional context of one nation, many cultures by an emphasis on increasing the inquiry skills of the learner. We see a healthier society emerging from an educational approach which encourages critical reflection on the values we share in common as well as on those which make different groups unique, from an approach which allows students to hear the voices of previously silenced groups and to incorporate the voices into their understanding of the American past from an approach which will allow them to critically examine the claims and counter- claims of textbooks of the past, and the political debates of the present. We see the need for a new understanding of American culture that recognizes its continuous re-invention, and recognizes also the many contributors to its sometimes clashing ideals. A fundamental assumption of multiculturalism is that the larger culture of the United States emerged from a synthesis of the experiences of diverse cultural groups. The report argues that the task of students learning about our society is to critically examine these experiences in their historical context.

While some of the comments on the report missed the mark, we found Nathan Glazer's balanced criticism particularly thought-provoking. He argues that we need to recognize that the various ethnic groups in this country are not "monolithic and unchanging realities." Different ethnic groups and individuals and classes within these groups have undergone different degrees of assimilation and intermarriage, taken different attitudes toward their own ethnicity and toward the American culture of which they are a part. Mr. Glazer points out that these groups are not something "hard and unchanging." But he worries that both teachers and students will want something more definite. He worries that presenting ethnicity in this oversimplified fashion might have the effect of inhibiting the processes of change that have helped us create a common society. We feel that blatant racism has been the most serious inhibitor of the creation of a common society, but that Nathan Glazer's caveat is nonetheless helpful. The silliness surrounding the attribution of different learning styles to different ethnic groups with the admonition to teach each accordingly seems to us a product of this penchant for oversimplification.

Implicit in this new educational agenda is the notion that all students, regardless of economic and cultural backgrounds, can be inducted into the habits of critical thinking. The achievement of this lofty goal will depend not only on the commitment of individual teachers, but on the availability of curriculum resources and on extensive opportunities for teacher education. We hope that budgetary constraints will not get in the way of local districts' and colleges' offering courses to teachers that will help them teach the culturally complex history of the United States to all their students.

Vol. 11, Issue 14, Page 36

Published in Print: December 4, 1991, as Multicultural Perspectives
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