Dictatorship of Conservatives

A Critique of Richard Bernstein’s Attack on Multiculturalism

By Bill Bigelow

“Why do they teach us that white people suck?”
— Elementary school student, Brookline, Massachusetts p. 235, Dictatorship of Virtue

According to New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, multiculturalism is an idea whose time has come — and gone. His latest book, Dictatorship ofVirtue, chronicles what Bernstein sees as the slide from good intentions to extremism. According to Bernstein, the “new multiculturalists” focus only on the negative in the United States, and have made a sport of America-bashing. They portray a cartoon society of oppressor groups and victim groups, and have stripped us of our individuality. Thus in this purgatory of political correctness, the curriculum surrenders its integrity and celebrates the works of the supposed victim groups as it banishes the classic works of Western Civilization. And then to silence debate, any protest of this drift to mediocrity is met with accusations of racism or sexism.

Bernstein’s 350-page polemic is a call to overthrow these “forces of politicization in education” and return to a tradition where merit is duly rewarded and the achievements of Great White Men once again sit center stage. The book has been getting media attention lately and will contribute to a growing backlash against multicultural curriculum reform — a backlash that is sure to gather momentum as we enter the era of Newt, Jesse and Orrin. Despite heavy doses of exaggeration and caricature — not to mention out and out name-calling (zealots! tyrants!) — Bernstein’s arguments often sound reasonable and compelling. Undoubtedly, his book will be useful to right-wing ideologues, but it may also trouble well-meaning teachers, parents, and policy-makers. His critique represents an opportunity to clarify multicultural aims and pedagogy.

The Indictment

Bernstein’s book overwhelms us with example after example of what he views as virtue run amok. Some allegations:

  • A proposed re-structured writing program at the University of Texas that tried to cram a radical view of U.S. society into the “tender minds of Texas freshmen;”
  • Brookline High School’s dropping of an AP European History course in favor of a more “global” approach that, according to a conservative parents’ group, was part of “an organized effort to make the curriculum subservient to radical leftist politics;”
  • The hounding of a University of New Hampshire professor who made a few off-color remarks to students;
  • New York City Schools’ Children of the Rainbow curriculum which directed that teachers — first grade and up — encourage students to respect gays and lesbians “in all curricular areas,” in violation of parents’ religious and cultural sensibilities;
  • And, of course, the frenzied attacks on Christopher Columbus and his discovery of America, which were but one tactic of the multicultural movement to further a “cult of the victim, in which society is viewed as an arena of oppression exercised by the white majority over everybody else” — Rethinking Schools’ own Rethinking Columbus is singled out for a page or so of criticism.

A case-by-case evaluation of these and other alleged scholastic crimes would be too tedious; and besides, because he gives credence to only one version of events, it would require nothing less than a trial to ferret out the full story of each incident.

More useful is to examine the underlying premises of his attack on multiculturalism.

No Racism Here

Any approach to curriculum begins from a certain standpoint about the nature of the society we live in. Bernstein’s United States is the freest, richest, greatest place on the planet. Sure, there is still inequality and a bit of racism and sexism scattered about, but the United States “has probably never been less racist — and for that matter less sexist and homophobic — than it is now.” On the other hand, the multiculturalists stress “endemic inequity rather than the degree to which the inequities of the past have been eliminated.” His sole measuring stick for racism is bias crimes. These are quite rare, he asserts — episodic, individual aberrations, greatly magnified by an “industry of exaggeration” created by multiculturalists. He offers no evidence or arguments to support this rosy no-problems-here social vision; for Bernstein, the fundamental rightness of our society is an article of faith.

A vast understatement of U.S. injustice is an essential underpinning of his critique of multiculturalism. He refuses to examine the extent to which a lopsided U.S. prosperity has been paid for with the lives of people who never benefited from that prosperity: Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos — and people in distant (and not so distant) lands who live and die by profit-and-loss calculations made in corporate boardrooms. Bernstein may hurl the easy “politically correct” epithet at such an analysis, but he never refutes it. He has no way to explain why, for example, white males live on average six years longer than their black counterparts, or why, even among individuals who have the same levels of education, Latinos are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than whites. He’s simply uninterested in any pattern of facts that might disrupt his vision of America as the end point of “triumphal progress,” as he calls it. Thus the great sin of the multiculturalists is their insistence that the curriculum be oriented toward uncovering and addressing social injustice, injustice he claims doesn’t exist.

An example: The University of Texas’s crime was “politicizing” a supposedly non-political undergraduate writing program. In years past, the course at UT, English-306, had been taught by graduate students, who had no particular training in writing instruction, and were left pretty much to do as they pleased. Enter a professor named Linda Brodkey. Brodkey proposed that the course be retitled Writing About Difference, and that it draw on court decisions on cases of civil rights and discrimination. Readings on court decisions would be supplemented with the text, Racism and Sexism:An Integrated Study, edited by Paula Rothenberg. In Brodkey’s view, the change would accomplish twin objectives: students would be more engaged in the writing process because they’d be struggling with big and vital issues, and it would contribute to a broader goal of helping “educate students on diversity and related topics.”

So what’s the big deal? Bernstein narrates with approval the ensuing academic firestorm. Brodkey and supporters, “accomplices” as Bernstein labels them, — who included virtually the entire English department — were attacked for their attempt to brainwash impressionable freshmen. According to Bernstein, the sole textbook, Rothenberg’s, suggested a “relentless victimization of women and people of color by the white-male power structure;” teachers like Brodkey didn’t care about writing, they cared about imparting their own radical politics; and in any event, writing topics are unimportant, what is important is “grammar, style, tone, form, cogency, organization and audience,” especially for these “remedial” students who take E-306. Ultimately, despite continued overwhelming support from the English department, the proposed E-306 changes were dropped. Brodkey now teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

Certainly it’s possible for reasonable and socially concerned people to disagree over the specific course restructuring at Texas. What’s of greater importance are the underlying terms of debate. Bernstein launches his critique of the E-306 proposals — indeed of the entire “new consciousness” movement, as he scornfully dubs it — based on the assumption that racism and all injustice should be measured on the basis of overt acts of abuse. When he feels that he has established that these are not a serious problem: case closed. But as Enid Lee points out in a recent article in the Canadian journal Orbit (“Anti-Racist Education: Panacea or Palliative?”) “racism is first and foremost a matter of effect not intent.” In other words, evaluating a society’s racial health, so to speak, requires us to look at outcomes: wealth and income distribution, educational attainment, access to medical care, life expectancy, environmental quality, et cetera, not simply at how people treat each other in individual interactions, though these are not insignificant. Bernstein ignores the big picture, the larger patterns of oppression and inequality, to concentrate on intentional acts of abuse. Not surprisingly, his prescription for racial justice is the appointment of “a sensible race-relations counselor” to provide “relief for students and others who feel that they have been victimized.” [my emphasis]. Oppression is subjective and requires therapy, not social change.

The Great Engine of Social Mobility

For Bernstein, because there is no systemic inequality, poverty must have other roots: First, immigrant newcomers are just beginning the inexorable journey to prosperity, but have a ways to go; and second, some cultures are ill-adapted to succeed in a capitalist society. And here he faults the multiculturalists for seeking to preserve those traits which should be abandoned. “The misty-eyed belief that all cultures are equal in all things is just nonsense, an encouragement of cultures of failure, an abdication of the responsibility to think clearly about what immigrant and nonwhite children need to know in order to succeed.” The curricular implication is straightforward: students, especially students of color, must learn those skills and character traits which will promote economic success and allow them to climb aboard “the great engine of upward social mobility” — period. Anything else is a waste of time. The multicultural project of teaching critical skills; probing for the causes of racism, sexism, war, environmental degradation; searching for lessons from non-capitalist cultures; encouraging students to find value in their own cultural heritages — all this distracts from the pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger mission of schooling. Dictatorship of Virtue sees schools as merely the farm teams of industry.

OK, Bernstein is entitled to his opinion. But what is so annoying is that he fails to see, or at least to acknowledge, this very conservative philosophy as “political.” The multiculturalists are political; he’s “disinterested,” he claims. Incidentally, the three “disinterested” souls who contributed blurbs on the book jacket include Reagan’s education chief and supporter of school vouchers, Lamar Alexander; failed Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork; and anti-feminist scholar, Christina Sommers. One of the “disinterested” financial backers of his book was the arch-conservative Bradley Foundation [see Rethinking Schools Vol. 8, #3, Spring 1994.] Bernstein paraphrases Sommers that “trust is betrayed when scholarship is subordinated to political purposes.” But how is it not political to begin from the premise that poverty and inequality are the fault of the victim, and that to survive you must obey the dictates of a profit-driven economy?

No doubt, squirreled away in Bernstein’s invective we can find kernels of truth. For example, he denounces multiculturalists’ hypocrisy in their call to “celebrate diversity.” But, he asks, where do they include the diverse voices of fundamentalist Christians, anti-abortionists, and conservative spokespeople like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Midge Decter? Fair enough. So perhaps we need to be more clear: at its best, multiculturalism is not just a celebration of abstract difference, but is a quest to critique structures of social domination, as well as to learn from each other how to live sanely in the world. Bernstein never argues that any of these groups or individuals will offer any help in this quest, only that they are “different.”

And Bernstein may be right that some “multiculturalists” are at times guilty of romanticizing and otherwise misrepresenting the cultures of non-European peoples — although in different ways than he claims. For example, in a recent survey of multicultural children’s books published on issues relating to the Columbus Quincentenary, I found that authors frequently appreciated non-Western cultures only to the extent that they were European-like: hierarchical, militarily powerful, commercially oriented. According to a chapter in one typical book (TheWorld in 1492, edited by Jean Fritz, et al.) empires like the Aztecs had reached their “highest glory,” whereas those cultures that were more egalitarian and uninterested in conquest were “just beginning.” [See “Good Intentions Are Not Enough,” TheNew Advocate, fall 1994.] A genuine multicultural curriculum needs to consistently seek out those cultural features that respect human dignity, and not just assume that might makes right.

White People Who Suck

So what about that Brookline child who wonders why she is taught that “white people suck”? Bernstein uses her as a monument to the evils of multiculturalism. Because I too have had students who take my U.S. history class and then ask this question, I’ll take a stab at it. If she had a good history teacher, even in elementary school, she learned about the African slave trade, about the genocide of the Taíno people initiated by Christopher Columbus, about the wars of aggression by white settlers and the U.S. government against Indian peoples. She may have learned that many of our presidents, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson were slaveholders, as were 40% of those who sat down to write the U.S. Constitution. She may have learned about the betrayal of African Americans after the Civil War, about lynchings, and about legalized segregation. She may have learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Because the practice of white supremacy is such an inescapable historical truth, and because, presumably, she is white, these facts may have troubled her.

I can’t speak for her teacher. But for me, a critical multicultural approach provides more than just a thumping litany of oppression. I want my white students, as well as my students of color, to know that there were white people throughout history who rejected racism and racial violence. From Bartolomé de las Casas, they read about the Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos, who in 1511 denounced Spanish brutality against the Taíno people on Hispaniola. They read Henry David Thoreau’s extraordinary tribute to the abolitionist warrior John Brown, and Brown’s dignified and defiant interview after he was captured.

They read Studs Terkel’s interview with C.P. Ellis, a former Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, who rejected racism and became a union and civil rights organizer. In short, they learn that there is an alternative anti-racist tradition among white people.

Perhaps a multicultural curriculum needs to emphasize more strongly this white legacy of defiance to injustice. Or perhaps the Brookline child had been so indoctrinated with Bernstein’s this-country-is-the-greatest message, that exposure to a more accurate history was truly devastating.

When Bernstein yearns for “a common culture based on the study of Western thought” and demands “special status for Europe” in academic discourse, he racializes American identity, thus inviting the “white people suck” response. Sure, let kids — and adults — honor the best aspects of European cultures, as well as those of their own families and national heritages. But let’s build a curriculum that encourages people to draw from one another. Bernstein wants a common culture? Fine. Let’s build an internationalist, social justice curriculum that permits people to search out the most liberating components from cultures around the world. I guarantee that this curricular exploration will create a finer “we” than if our search were limited to “Western thought.”

Bill Bigelow is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate.