The challenges of multicultural education

The goals of multicultural education include imparting more accurate and complete information about many cultures, reducing prejudice and fostering tolerance, improving the academic achievement of minority students, reaffirming our commitment to the American ideals of pluralism and democracy and helping to make those ideals a reality.

Advocates of multicultural education say that these goals can best be reached not by adding separate units about various ethnic groups to our curriculum, but by transforming the whole curriculum to acknowledge diversity and honor multiple perspectives. Social studies, history and literature classes are the most fertile ground for this change, writes Scott Willis in a recent issue of Curriculum Update. Educators report that before multicultural education can become a reality, many challenges and choices must be addressed.

At least the five prominent ethnic groups in America — Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Europeans — should be included in any effort at providing multicultural perspectives in curricula, says James Banks, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Multicultural Education. He recommends focusing on issues such as immigration, intercultural interaction and racism, using the historical experience of these various groups. Teachers should focus, in other words, on key ideas not on individual ethnic groups.

Educators must help students see historical events from a variety of perspectives. This is a challenge that requires recasting the traditional curriculum. For example, the westward movement in this country must be seen not only as an expansion opportunity for European Americans but, also, as displacement for Native Americans. The West itself reflects a European perspective. For Mexicans the West was the North and for Chinese, the East and for the Sioux it was the center of the universe.

Teachers involved in multicultural education report that they try to show their students as many perspectives as they honestly can. Role playing has proved to be a particularly powerful technique to help students gain understanding of a different culture1s experience. Teaching history as the story of people rather than the achievements of military or government leaders has enabled some teachers to shift their focus more easily. Placing more emphasis on social, economic and cultural history as well as everyday life adds depth and richness to traditional history curricula.

How to portray cultural groups

Advocates of multicultural education believe it is important to get beyond victims and heroes when portraying the history of cultural groups. But they also acknowledge that it is difficult to present history accurately and not offend some group.

Understandably, members of minority groups sometimes wish to downplay the negative aspects of their history, such as slavery and poverty, out of a concern that this will perpetuate stereotypes. Juan Gomez-Quinones, professor of history, University of California/Los Angeles, believes that though issues like racism, prejudice and inequality should not be avoided neither should curricula wallow in negativity.

It is important, he says, not to sugar-coat history but to present positive images of ethnic groups to counteract the negative ones that prevail in our society. Young minority children, especially, need to have role models specific to their culture; students can examine more negative portrayals when they are older.

Advocates of multicultural education say that children want to and should know the whole story. Avoiding stereotypes, however, is another challenge. Using primary sources can help. Teachers need to underscore the difference between the characteristics of a group and the behavior of individuals. In addition, they need to emphasize that identities are complex and that class, gender, region and religion all influence individuals.

The term Asian American, these advocates remind us, is an example of an over-generalization. In reality, Asian Americans can only be Korean American, Chinese Americans Japanese Americans and so forth. Likewise, Native American tribes are very different from one another. Generalizations can make studying a group easier, but teachers need to remind students that they are generalizing.

Choosing multicultural literature

Teachers can present different perspectives simply by choosing literature written by and about people from a variety of cultural groups. Children of various cultures need to recognize people like themselves in books and it is important to attempt to provide all students with this experience. Fortunately, as children1s literature becomes more and more multicultural, this is becoming easier.

Advocates of multicultural teaching emphasize that there is a need for teachers to educate themselves about multiculturalism. Educators, they remind us, are primarily white, middle-class and female, and they need to develop an understanding of diversity if they are to teach from a multicultural perspective. Besides, they argue, a better understanding of our country1s multicultural heritage will put teachers in a position to understand the varied cultural backgrounds, attitudes and motivations of their students.

Discussions about racism and oppression can be divisive and create conflict in a classroom. It is a challenge for teachers to help students work through conflicts that arise. Gomez-Quinones reports that, in his experience, young people are much more ready to talk about these issues and more sensitive to one another than most adults realize. He adds that not everything that is presented about various cultures has to be tolerated or accepted.

Sometimes moral judgment can not be avoided. But teachers need to help students understand why they are making certain judgments, and that while we don’t have to sanction all cultural practices, we do need to look at them in the context of the time and culture in which they occur.

“Multicultural Teaching: Meeting the Challenges that Arise in Practice”, ASCD Curriculum Update, September 1993, p.1-8.

Published in ERN, January/February 1994, Volume 7, Number 1.

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