The Debate Over Multicultural Education In America Essay

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 the education, and how to present the material in a way so as
to offend the least amount of people. There are many variations on these
themes as will be discussed later in this paper.

In the 1930’s 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 a 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 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 others 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. Since
education is at the root of the problem, it might be appropriate to use an
example in that context. Although the debate at Stanford University ran much
deeper than I can hope to touch in this paper, the root of the problem was as
follows: In 1980, Stanford University came up with a program – later known
as the “Stanford-style multicultural curriculum” which aimed to familiarize
students with traditions, philosophy, literature, and history of the West. The
program consisted of 15 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 and do away with the fifteen book requirement and the term
“Western” for the study of at least one non-European culture and proper
attention to be given to the issues of race and gender (Gould 199). This
debate was very important because its publicity provided the 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.

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Proponents of multicultural education argue that it offers students a
balanced appreciation and critique of other cultures as well as our own
(Stotsky 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 contributions 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 aspects of 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 children
during the early years of learning, when kids are most impressionable. By
engaging students in activities that follow the lines of their multicultural
curriculum, they can open up young minds while making learning fun. in one
first grade classroom, an inventive teacher used the minority students to her
advantage by making them her helpers as she taught the rest of the class some
simple Spanish words and customs. This newly acquired vocabulary formed
a common bond among the children in their early years, an appropriate time
for learning respect and understanding (Pyszkowski 154).
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 our
society altogether, if only for a day. Having kids dress up in foreign clothing,
sample foods and sing songs from abroad makes educating easier on the
teacher by making it fun for the students. A simple idea that helps teachers is
to let students speak for themselves. Ask students how they feel about each
other and why. This will 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 will 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 all students. Teachers can also keep on top of things by
regularly attending workshops and 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 has come up with six guidelines that they think teachers should
emphasize in order to help break down ethnic barriers. These steps are as
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 wealths 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 life in the future.

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 and 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 145-47).

In order to give a well rounded multicultural discussion, as James
Banks explains, teachers need to let students know how knowledge reflects
the social, political, and economic context in which it was created.
Knowledge explained by powerful groups in society differs greatly from that
of its less powerful counterparts (Banks 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”.
They should realize that to Native Americans, pioneers were actually the
immigrants, but since the “pioneers” later went on to write the textbooks, it is
not usually described that way. 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 Alaskans, the west was actually the south, they can
realize the bearings of how the elite in society determine what is learned. By
not falling victim to these same misconceptions, students can better make
unprejudiced decisions about those around them. Another important aspect
students need to realize is that knowledge alone isn’t enough to shape a
society. The members themselves have to be willing to put forth the time and
effort and show an interest in shaping their society in order for it to benefit all

While generally opposed to the idea, Francis Ryan 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 137). It would certainly give people a sense of ethnic
pride to know how their forefathers contributed to the building of the
American society that we live in today. It is also a great feeling to know that
we can change what we feel is wrong to build a better system for our
children. Minorities would benefit from learning the evolution of their culture
and realizing that the ups and downs along the way do not necessarily mean
that their particular lifestyle is in danger of extinction.

Some opponents feel that the idea of multiculturalism will, instead of
uniting cultures, actually divide them. They feel that Americans should try
and think of themselves as a whole rather than people from different places
all living together. They go even further to say that it actually goes against
our democratic tradition, the cornerstone of American society (Stotsky 64).
In Paul Gannon’s article Balancing Multicultural and Civic Education
will Take More Than Social Stew, he 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 (Gannon 8). Since both modern democracy and its
alternatives are derived mostly from European past, and since most of the
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 agrees with Gannon 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, but should not be swayed in our critical
thinking by the fact that some people will not feel equally treated or even
disrespected (Hassinger 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 our curriculum. When conflicts arise with the way we do things, we
should explore why rather than compromise in order to protect a certain
groups feelings.
Francis Ryan warns that trying to push the subject of multiculturalism
too far would actually be a hindrance if it interferes with a students
participation in other groups, or worse yet, holds the child back from
expressing his or her own individuality. He gives a first-hand 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 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 others look at these same qualities.
Children must be taught to resolve inner-conflicts about their identity, so that
these features that make us unique will be brought out in the open where they
can be enjoyed by all instead of being hidden in fear of facing rejection from
their peers. Teachers need to spend an equal amount of time developing each
students individuality so they don’t end up feeling obligated to their racial
group more than they feel necessary to express the diversity that makes
America unique.
As Harlan Cleveland points out, 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 26). Only in America is there such a diverse array of people in
power from county officials all the way up to the make up of people in our
Supreme Court. However, although we have made many advances culturally
that other countries haven’t, 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 though, these once unheard of suggestions 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
(Duignan 492). The modern achievements that put America ahead of other
countries are unique to America because they were developed here. Many
third-world countries still practice things that we have evolved from many
years ago, such as slavery, wife beatings, and planned marriages. We are
also given many freedoms that are unheard of in other countries.
Homosexuality is punished severely in other lands, while we have grown to
realize that it is part of the genetic makeup of many people and they cannot
control it.
Most immigrants come to America for a better way of life, willing to
leave behind the uncivilized values of their mother countries. Instead of
trying to move the country that they came from into America, immigrants
need to be willing to accept the fact that America is shared by all who live
here, and it is impossible to give every citizen an equal amount of attention.
If we are not willing to forget some parts of our heritage in favor of a set of
well rounded values, then a fully integrated America will never be possible.
There certainly is no easy answer to the problem of multicultural
education. 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 public 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
in the same society, we must sometimes be willing to overlook parts of our
distant past in exchange for a new hope in the future. Our only chance is to
continue to debate the topic in order to hope for a “middle of the road”
compromise. One particularly interesting solution is that we could study the
basics of how America came about in the most non-biased way possible, not
concentrating on the race and sex of our forefathers as much as what they
made happen, at least during the elementary and high school years. This
would leave the study of individual nationalities, which are not themselves
major contributing factors, for people to do at home or further down the line
in their education, where they can focus on tradition and beliefs to any extent
they want without fear of anyone feeling segregated.

In conclusion, in order for us to function as a whole, we need to start
thinking of America in terms of a whole. With just a basic understanding of
other cultures, and most importantly, the tools and background to think
critically and make our own decisions not based on color, sex, religion, or
national origin, but on information that we were able to accurately attain
through the critical thinking skills we were taught in school, we would be
better equipped to work at achieving harmony in a varied racial country.

Works Cited
Banks, James A. “Multicultural Literacy and Curriculum Reform.” The
Education Digest 13 Dec. 1991: 10-13.

Cleveland, Harlan. “The Limits To Cultural Diversity.” The Futurist March –
April 1995 : 23-6.

Duignan, Peter. “The Dangers of Multiculturalism.” Vital Speeches of the
Day 22 Mar. 1995 : 492-493.

Gagnon, Paul. “Balancing Multicultural and Civic Education Will Take More
Than “Social Stew”.” The Education Digest Dec. 1991 : 7-9.

Gould, Ketayun H. “The Misconstruing of Multiculturalism : The Stanford
Debate and Social Work” Social Work Mar. 1995 : 198-204.
Hassinger, Robert. “True Multiculturalism.” Commonweal 10 April 1992 :

New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee
“Multicultural Education Benefits All Students.” Education in America
– Opposing Viewpoints. CA : Greenhaven, 1992. 144-150.

Pyszkowski, Irene S. “Multiculturalism – Education For The Nineties; An
Overview.” Education Vol. 114 No. 1 : 151-157.

Ryan, Francis J. “The Perils of Multiculturalism : Schooling for theGroup.”
Educational Horizons 7 Spring 1993 : 134-8.

Stotsky, Sandra. “Acedemic vs. Ideological Education in the Classroom.”
The Education Digest Mar. 1992 : 64-6.


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