In the last few posts (here and here), we have imagined the arguments traditionalists might make that multicultural ideology contains an unacknowledged bias against those who maintain traditional beliefs. Even if we take multiculturalism on its own terms, however, we run up against unacceptable results in practice. As even its most earnest promoters recognize, “multiculturalism” has come to include a vast muddle of conflicting meanings. James Banks, for instance, one of the most prominent advocates of multicultural ideology in schools, sums up the many meanings of multiculturalism into three tendencies. Multiculturalism, Banks argues, can be an idea, an educational reform movement, and a process.
As an idea, at least in Banks’ exposition, multiculturalism refers to the notion that “all students—regardless of their gender, social class, and ethnic, racial, or cultural characteristics—should have an equal opportunity to learn in school.” Embedded in this notion is the idea of reform. Banks argues that in order to achieve this kind of equal opportunity, multiculturalism implies a sustained effort to change schooling. This must be more than simply including a unit on different ethnic groups in a history class. This must be more than reading stories about all kinds of ethnicities. Rather, Banks argues that multiculturalism must include a thorough overhaul of the school as an institution. Students, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents must all work to create a total environment in which every person feels welcomed and represented. The totality of this scheme is part of what leads Banks to argue for multiculturalism as a process. Too many schools and school districts, in Banks’ opinion, merely slap some multicultural window-dressing on traditional schools and call it a day. Instead, multiculturalism must include a continuing effort to create a truly multicultural environment.
In essence, multiculturalism is the latest attempt to get schools to correct the fundamental injustices of American society. The promise is appealing. For most of American history, schools have promised to equalize opportunity. Do well in school, the tradition assures us, and anyone can be President. Yet the reality of American education has usually merely reproduced social, economic, and racial hierarchies. For instance, poor kids went to worse schools. They tended to be tracked into educational programs that would fit them only for the worst-paid, lowest-prestige jobs.
Multicultural ideology hoped to help remedy that problem. By including all cultures in schools, multiculturalism promised to achieve many goals simultaneously. First of all, it would erode the racial hierarchy that kept white people on top. That hierarchy has often been reproduced intentionally in schools, especially up through the middle of the twentieth century. After that point, however, many schools have tended to reproduce white privilege unintentionally.
One promise of multicultural ideology is that schools will teach each new generation of white kids that other cultures are equally valid, equally American. This will have the double value of weakening the power of traditional white supremacy while also showing students of other ethnic backgrounds that their experiences are equally legitimate. Such non-white students will come to feel welcome in school and able to succeed. The implicit dominance of white culture that had ruled schools for so long will no longer force students to feel they must abandon their culture in order to do well in school.
This will not just be a racial or ethnic difference. American schools have a long and ugly history of serving as “sorting machines,” to use Joel Spring’s term. Multicultural ideology promised to smash that machine. To allow students of every gender, every race, every economic class, every religion, every sexual identity, to feel equally welcomed by the institution of school.
Inclusive, multicultural schools would open up the benefits of education to everyone, not only those who come to school already skilled in the implicit culture of schooling. Just as important, multicultural education would deliver better education to those who come from traditionally dominant groups—in other words, for the well-off white kids. By incorporating and valuing the wealth of cultural experiences into schooling, students of every group would achieve a richer, more authentic education.
Multiculturalism, in short, promised to improve education for all, to eliminate any notion of a zero-sum game. Multiculturalism would help kids from minority backgrounds while also improving education for those who had started out on top. In this way, multiculturalism served as only the latest in a long series of panaceas in public education. By fixing schools in a multicultural direction, the argument went, we could fix society. We could finally achieve the sort of racial, class, and gender equality that we had been striving for for so long. Again, a very tall order.
The vast ambition of multiculturalism is part of what led Banks to insist this must be at once an educational reform movement and an ongoing, continuous process. If not, as Banks and other multicultural proponents recognized, multicultural ideology can easily become something far less promising.
And, in practice, multiculturalism has failed on its own terms. The way schools and teachers have used it, multiculturalism has degraded into a mishmash of ideas that reify overly simplistic notions of identity among students. In other words, the effort to include and celebrate the rich cultural mosaic of American life in public schools has instead had an unintentional dehumanizing effect. Students are trained to see people as expressions of stylized cultural identity, instead of as fully realized persons. For instance, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos are pigeonholed into exclusively ethnic stereotypes. The fact that those stereotypes are now cast in a flattering light does not change the fact that non-whites tend to be reduced to mere racial identity.
In addition, multiculturalism in practice tends to promote an idea of ethnicity as something other people have. Whiteness remains the norm, and other cultures become colorful exceptions to the rule. So, for instance, multiculturalism in practice promotes the notion that culture means traditional cultures from other countries, perhaps the home countries of American immigrant society. It tends to promote those cultures as quaint and archaic, not as authentic contemporary notions.
For example, one recent study of purportedly multiculturalist children’s literature found a much more conflicted ideological message. The authors, Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, and Claudia Haag, found that many non-white, non-English-speaking characters in such literature are presented as outsiders. In other words, in practice, multicultural ideology implied that other cultures were legitimate places to be from, but in order to achieve full personhood, protagonists needed to assimilate to traditional white English cultural norms.
Even uglier, multiculturalism in practice can degrade into a call for racist preferences for traditionally put-upon ethnic groups. We see this most starkly in the call for Afrocentric curricula. Led by many scholars based in universities such as Molefi Kete Asante, Maulana Karenga, and Asa Hilliard III, the push for Afrocentric school history began in the early 1980s. Activists argued that traditional schools had miseducated students for generations, especially African American students. Instead of forcing a biased and inaccurate European-based history down the throats of black kids, these theorists argued, schools ought to adopt a thoroughly Africanized curriculum. At the very least, this should put Africa at the center of historical study. It should teach students that they are not primarily Americans, but primarily Africans in America. It should also teach students that they share essential racial characteristics.
This was not just ivory-tower theorizing. Several large school districts adopted some form of Afrocentric curricula during the 1980s and 1990s. In the Washington DC school district, for instance, one school had an Afrocentric program that started each day with an opening ritual patterned after purportedly African-derived practices. Students were taught that they were part of a people that saw themselves as spirits that have a body, not bodies that have spirits. Students were taught that Western culture derived from Africa, stolen, diluted, and bastardized by Greeks and Romans who learned at the feet of Black African teachers.
In the 1990s, superintendent Matthew Prophet encouraged teachers in Portland, Oregon to teach their students that Africa represented the source and inspiration of all culture, including literature, politics, mathematics, and science. Students should be taught, according to the social-studies material available for Portland teachers, that Africans had colonized South America long before Asians or Europeans. They should learn that Africa was the source of the Pythagorean theorem and of every significant scientific breakthrough of modern times. Anything less, in the words of one author of this curriculum guide, would cause “great harm” to students.
These were not unfortunate misinterpretations of multiculturalism’s lofty goals. Instead, they form a predictable result of an overambitious and overly vague cultural ideology. The promise of racial and cultural equality that forms the core of multicultural ideology will predictably be used to promote a new version of racism, new visions of cultural hierarchies. Multiculturalism promises to include all students in schools; it promises to open educational opportunity to all; it insists it can improve education for all. But in practice, what schools are left with is simply a new racist ideology, one that inverts the traditional pyramid. In the new multicultural order, however, racism is not eliminated but celebrated in a new way.
As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. complained, multiculturalism waters down real learning. It turns the study of history and literature into “therapies whose function it is to raise minority self-esteem.” Left unchecked, such ideas about the proper values for schools will not only dumb down public schools. By asserting racism in the guise of multiculturalism, by encouraging students and teachers to think of themselves not primarily as individuals but first and most importantly as members of an ethnic group, Schlesinger argues that multiculturalism will lead to the “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.” Schlesinger was no right-wing crank. He was one of the most prominent liberal historians of mid-twentieth century America, well known for his elegant prose and for his role as the Kennedys’ “court historian in Camelot.” It was precisely his embrace of the liberal values of an open, egalitarian, individualistic, humanitarian society that led him to attack the race-driven vagaries of multiculturalist ideology near the end of his career.
Schlesinger was not concerned with protecting the rights of students from traditionalist or conservative Christian backgrounds. He did not hope to reinstall a regime of prayer and Bible reading in American schools. He worried that multiculturalism would “disunite” America. He worried that multiculturalism made true learning impossible. He worried that multiculturalism heralded a return to racial supremacy as an organizing idea for American schools and culture.
Further reading: James A. Banks & Cherry A. McGee Banks, eds., Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, 7th Edition (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010); Amy J. Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine: National Educational Policy Since 1945 (Longman, 1976); Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, Claudia Haag, “Assimilation Ideology: Critically Examining Underlying Messages in Multicultural Literature,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54 (2) October 2010, pp. 109-119; Matthew W. Prophet, ed., African American Baseline Essays, revised edition (Portland, OR: Multnomah School District, 1990); Michael Olneck, “Terms of Inclusion: Has Multiculturalism Redefined Equality in American Education?” American Journal of Education 101 (1993): 234-60; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, revised and enlarged edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).