Multicultural Education

Multicultural Education

America has long been called “The Melting Pot” due to the fact that it is made up of a varied mix of races, cultures and ethnicities. As more and more immigrants come to America searching for a better life, the population naturally becomes more diverse. This has, in turn, spun a great debate over multiculturalism. Some of the issues under fire are who is benefiting from a multicultural education, and how to best present the material in a way so as to offend the least amount of people. There are many variations to these themes as will be discussed later in this paper.

In the 1930s, several educators called for programs of cultural diversity that encouraged ethnic and minority students to study their respective heritages. This is not a simple feat due to the fact that there is much diversity within individual cultures. “A look at the 1990 census shows that the American population has changed more noticeably in the last ten years than in any other time in the twentieth century, with one out of every four Americans identifying themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander or American Indian,” (Gould, 1995, p.198). The number of foreign born residents also reached an all-time high of twenty million, easily passing the 1980 record of fourteen million. Most people, from educators to philosophers, agree that an important first step in successfully joining multiple cultures is to develop an understanding of each other’s background. However, the similarities stop there.

One problem is in defining the term “multiculturalism”. When it is looked at simply as meaning the existence of a culturally integrated society, many people have no problems. However, when you go beyond that and try to suggest a different way of arriving at that culturally integrated society, everyone seems to have a different opinion on what will work. In 1980, Stanford University came up with a program – later known as the “Stanford-style multicultural curriculum” which aimed to familiarize the students with traditions, philosophy, literature, and history of the West. The program consisted of fifteen required books by writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Aquinas, Marx, and Freud. By 1987, a group called the Rainbow Coalition argued the fact that the books were all written by DWEM’s or Dead White European Males. They felt that this type of teaching denied students the knowledge of contributions by people of color, women, and other oppressed groups. In 1987, the faculty voted 39 to 4 to change the curriculum by doing away with the fifteen book requirement as well as the term “Western” in order to give proper attention to the issues of race and gender (Gould, p.199). This debate was very important because its publicity provided grounds for the argument that America is a pluralistic society and to study only one people would not accurately portray what really makes up this country. Proponents of multicultural education argue that it offers students a balanced appreciation and critique of other cultures as well as their own (Stotsky, 1992, p.64).

While it is common sense that one could not have a true understanding of a subject by only possessing knowledge of one side of it, this brings up the fact that there would never be enough time in our current school year to equally cover the contribution of each individual nationality. This leaves teachers with two options. The first would be to lengthen the school year, which is highly unlikely because of the political and economic aspects surrounding the situation. The other choice is to modify the curriculum to only include what the instructor (or school) feels are the most important contributions, which again leaves them open to criticism from groups that feel they are not being equally treated. A national standard is out of the question because of the fact that different parts of the country contain certain concentrations of nationalities. An example of this is the high concentration of Cubans in Florida or Latinos in the west.

Nonetheless, teachers are at the top of the agenda when it comes to multiculturalism. They can do the most for the children during the early years of learning, when the kids are the most impressionable. By engaging students in activities that follow the lines of their multicultural curriculum, teachers can broaden young minds while making learning hands on and fun. In one first grade classroom, an inventive teacher utilized the Spanish speaking students to her advantage by making them her helpers as she taught the rest of the class some simple Spanish words and customs (Pyszkowski, 1997, p.154). This newly acquired vocabulary formed a common bond among the children thus instilling a sense of respect and understanding for each other.

Another exciting idea is to put children in the setting of the culture they are learning about. By surrounding children in the ideas and customs of other cultures, they can better understand what it is like to be removed from their society altogether, if only for one day. As seen in the film “Clare’s Classroom,” having the students dress up in foreign clothing, sample foods, sing songs, learn a new language, and listen to guest speakers from a different country, not only reaches out to the multiple intelligences, but makes learning fun and interesting for the students. A simple idea that helps to engage students in the learning process is for teachers to continually propose questions to the class in order to let students speak for themselves. By asking students how they feel about each other and why, could potentially help dispel stereotypes that might be created in the home. By asking questions of each other, students can get firsthand answers about the beliefs and customs of other cultures, along with some insight as to why people feel the way they do, something that can never be adequately accomplished through a textbook. Students are not the only ones who can benefit from this type of learning. Teachers certainly pick up on educational aspects from other countries. If, for instance, a teacher has a minority student from a different country every year, he or she can develop a well-rounded teaching style that would in turn benefit and include all students. Teachers can also keep abreast of ever changing teaching and learning styles by regularly attending workshops as well as getting parents involved so they can reinforce what is being taught in the classroom at home.

The New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee (1992) has come up with six guidelines that they think teachers should emphasize in order to help break down ethnic barriers. These steps are as follows: First, from the very beginning, social studies should be taught from a global perspective. We are all equal owners of the earth, none of us are more entitled than others to share in its many wealth’s or misfortunes. The uniqueness of each individual is what adds variety to our everyday life. Second, social studies will continue to serve nation building purposes. By pointing out the things we share in common, it will be easier to examine the individual things that make us different. Third, the curriculum must strive to be informed by the most up to date scholarship. The administrators must know that in the past, we have learned from our mistakes, and we will continue to do so in the future. By keeping an open mind, we will take in new knowledge and different viewpoints as they are brought up. Fourth, students need to see themselves as active makers and changers of culture and society. If given the skills to judge people and their thoughts fairly and the knowledge that they can make a difference, students will take better control of their lives. Fifth, the program should be committed to the honoring and continuing examination of democratic values as an essential basis for social organization and nation building. Although the democratic system is far from perfect, it has proven in the past that it can be effective if we continue to put effort into maintaining it while leaving it open for change. Sixth, social studies should be taught not solely as information, but rather through the critical examination of ideas and events rooted in time and place responding to social interests. The subject needs to be taught with excitement that sparks kids interest and motivates them to want to take place in the shaping of the future of our country (NYSSSRADC, p.145-47).

In order to give a well-rounded multicultural discussion, as James Banks (1998) explains, teachers need to let students know how knowledge reflects the social, political, and economic context in which it is created. Knowledge explained by powerful groups in society differs greatly from that of its less powerful counterparts (Banks, 1991, p.11). For example, it should be pointed out how early Americans are most often called “pioneers” or “settlers” in social studies texts, while foreigners are called “immigrants”. Students need to realize that to the Lakota Sioux the settlers were not heroic pioneers but invaders, and since the “pioneers” later went on to write the textbooks, it is not presented that way (Banks, 1998, p. 17). By simply looking at the term “western culture” it is obvious that this is a viewpoint of people from a certain area. If students are aware that to the Alaskans, the west was actually the south, they can realize the bearings of how the elite in society determine exactly what is taught. By not falling victim to these same misconceptions, students can better make unprejudiced decisions about those around them.

Another important aspect is that students need to realize that knowledge alone isn’t enough to shape a society. The members have to be willing to put forth the effort, time as well as show a valid interest in shaping their society, in order for it to benefit all people. While generally opposed to the idea of multicultural education, Francis Ryan (1993) points out that “multicultural education programs indeed may be helpful for all students in developing perspective-taking skills and an appreciation for how ethnic and minority traditions have evolved and changed as each came into contact with other groups” (Ryan, p.137). It would certainly give people a sense of ethnic pride to know how their Fore Fathers contributed to the building of the American society that exists today.

Some opponents feel that the idea of multiculturalism will, instead of uniting cultures, actually divide them. Many critics feel that Americans should think of themselves as a whole, rather than people from many different places all living together. Some go even further to say that it actually goes against our democratic tradition, the cornerstone of American society (Stotsky, 1992, p.64). Paul Gagnon (1991, p.8) brings up an interesting point that “education in the origins, evolution, advances and defeats of democracy must, by its nature, be heavily Western and also demand great attention to political history.” Since both modern democracy and its alternatives are derived mostly from European past, and since most of its participants were white males who are now dead, the choices are certainly limited. If we try to avoid these truths or sidestep them in any way, we cannot honestly say we are giving an accurate description of our history.

Robert Hassinger (1992) agrees with Gagnon and adds that we cannot ignore the contributions of DWEM’s for the simple fact that they are just that. He thinks that we should study such things as the rise of capitalism or ongoing nationalism in other countries, and should not be swayed in our critical thinking by the fact that some people will not feel equally treated or may even feel disrespected (Hassinger, p.11). There certainly must be reasons why many influential people in our history have been DWEM’s, and we should explore these reasons without using race and sex alone as reasons for excluding them from the curriculum. When conflicts arise in the current curriculum, the reasoning behind why it was done this way should first be explored before compromising the curriculum in order to protect a certain group’s feelings. Francis Ryan (1993) warns that trying to push the idea of multiculturalism would actually be a hindrance if it interferes with a student’s participation in other groups, or worse yet, holds the child back from expressing his or her own individuality. Ryan gives the firsthand example of one of his African American students who was afraid to publicly admit his dislike for rap music because he felt ethnically obligated as part of his black heritage (Ryan, p.137).

While a teacher can be a great help in providing information about other cultures, by the same note, that information can be just as harmful if it is incomplete. In order for students to be in control of their own identity, they must have some idea of how other cultures depict the qualities that they themselves hold dear. Children must be taught to resolve inner-conflicts about their identity, so that the features that make each of us unique will be brought out in the open where they can be enjoyed by all, instead of hidden in fear of facing rejection from peers. Teachers need to spend an equal amount of time developing each student’s individuality so they don’t end up feeling obligated to their own racial group more than they feel necessary to express their diversity that makes America unique.

As Harlan Cleveland (1995) points out that many countries still feel that the predominant race must be the one in power. For instance, try to imagine a Turkish leader in Germany, or anyone but a Japanese in control of Japan (Cleveland, p.26). Only in America is there such a diverse array of people in power from county officials all the way up to the Supreme Court. However, although we have made many advances culturally, we still have yet to see an African American, Latino, or for that matter, a woman as head of our country. With increasing awareness of other cultures, these once unheard of ideas are making their way even closer to reality.

Another way to look at the issue is that, “most non-Western cultures have few achievements equal to Western culture either in the past or present” (Duigan, 1995, p.492). The modern achievements that put America ahead of other countries are unique to America because they were often developed here. Many third-world countries still practice things that America has evolved from many years ago such as slavery, wife beatings and planned marriages. Americans are also given many freedoms that are often unheard of in other countries. For example, homosexuality is severely punished in other lands, while we have grown to realize that it is a part of the genetic makeup of many people and they cannot control it. Fortunately, America prides itself on keeping an open mind and strives to ensure equality to all its citizens, but since America is shared by all that live here, it is nearly impossible to give every citizen an equal amount of attention. Therefore, Americans and immigrants alike must be willing to overlook some parts of their heritage in favor of a multicultural curriculum, the first step to a fully integrated America.

There certainly is no easy answer to the debate over the integration of a multicultural education in America. Proponents will continue to argue the benefits that unfortunately seem to be too far out of reach for our imperfect society. The hard truth is that it is impossible for our school system to fairly cater to the hundreds of nationalities that already exist, let alone the hundreds more that are projected to arrive during the next century. In order for us to live together on the same soil, we must be willing to overlook parts of our past in exchange for a new hope in the future. Our only chance is to continue to debate the topic with hopes for a “middle of the road” compromise.

In conclusion, in order for us to function as a whole, we need to start thinking of America in terms of a whole. With a basic understanding of other cultures, and more importantly, the tools and background to think critically about other cultures, students will gain a deeper understanding of their own cultures. Students need to be taught to not make decisions about people based on their color, sex, religion, or national origin, but rather on the information that they accurately attained through the critical thinking skills taught in school. In doing this students will be better equipped to work at achieving harmony in this varied racial country through the implementation of an ever-growing and ever-changing multicultural education system.


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Banks, James A. (1998). Multiculturalism’s five dimensions. NEA Today, 17(1), 17-21.

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