The Promise of Multiculturalism

Democratic Values Demand Honest History

By Alan Singer

A current television advertisement for Colonial Williamsburg opens with a citizen’s militia gathering on the town square. The voice-over tells viewers that these Americans, who all appear to be white, are preparing to fight for their freedom (from Great Britain). The scene then shifts to a poor agrarian African-American community. It is nighttime and people are joyously celebrating the birth of a child. The voice-over tells us that this group of Americans is now one generation closer to freedom.

I asked graduate students preparing to become secondary school social studies teachers in New York State if they thought this advertisement represented a “step forward” for the idea of multicultural education. Responses at first were generally positive. Students believed that Colonial Williamsburg was making a significant effort to integrate the African-American experience into U.S. history.

As the students talked further and examined the images more carefully however, answers became less certain. The advertisement did not mention that the African Americans were enslaved and that the American Revolution did not offer them freedom. In fact, many revolutionary Virginians, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders.

The statement that this African-American community was a generation closer to freedom also seemed a distortion of the past. After the Revolution, as new land was opened to the south and west and cotton production expanded, slavery grew harsher and it became nearly impossible for African Americans to secure manumission. The Civil War was fought before slavery ended, and it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that descendants of the citizen’s militia and of the African-American community fought on different sides of that war.

Each of the classes eventually concluded that expanding the social studies curriculum to include people previously excluded, although an important gain, remains historically and educationally insufficient. It does not explain what happened in the past and why. It does not equip students to develop insights into U.S. society today.

During the discussion, the students repeatedly mentioned the need to expand debate on the meaning of multiculturalism and the nature of modern society in the United States. In general, the classes concluded that teachers and scholars (some participants were willing to include parents, communities, and students) must continually design and redesign social studies curricula. These curricula should respect the integrity of the past while engaging students in active learning and thinking and preparing them to be participants in a democratic and multicultural society.

Obviously, this is a tall order. If we view multiculturalism as a direction rather than a formula, I believe that the debate over multiculturalism can enhance the position of history and social studies in our schools and our society and can promote concern for democratic processes, values, and institutions. The multicultural debate has the potential to stimulate new teachers, and some veterans, to think about teaching in new and exciting ways and to get students, parents, and communities to look at history as a dynamic, important tool that shapes the present.

As a historian of the United States, a high school social studies teacher, a teacher educator, a parent, and an active citizen, I have been part of the debate over multicultural education in New York City, and I have contributed to sections of the 7th and 11th grade curricula. I consider myself a strong advocate of multicultural education in the social studies curriculum, but I do not minimize the role of Western civilization in shaping today’s world. If anything, through nationalism, expansion, slavery, industrialization, colonialism, and imperialism, as well as through the development of democratic, capitalist, and socialist institutions, the West has reshaped much of our globe and the lives and cultures of its peoples.

The New York Debate

Debate in New York City and New York State during the last two years has been heated. Educational theories have been used to promote political agendas, and both the integrity and competence of participants in the debate have been questioned. Even so, the arguments surrounding multicultural education are too important to ignore. I want to identify and explore briefly six ideas that I believe are integral to formulating meaningful multicultural social studies curricula for public schools in the United States.

1. The study of history must respect the integrity of the past. No matter how comforting or convenient, we should not teach myth as history. We should also recognize, however, that historical interpretations change and that the ideologies of historians and societies shaped them.

Those who object to a new multicultural history curriculum charge that their opponents want to rewrite the past to satisfy political pressure groups. These critics accuse multiculturalists of wanting to teach a “politically correct” mythology. At the same time, they either deny or ignore that they too hold political points of view. A statement issued by the Committee of Scholars in Defense of History (1990), signed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Diane Ravitch, and others, broadly attacked A Curriculum ofInclusion (1989), a report on multicultural curriculum revision submitted to the New York State Board of Regents, because “it saw history rather as a form of social and psychological therapy whose function is to raise the self-esteem of children from minority groups.”

During the summer of 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo entered New York State’s multicultural debate, criticizing recommendations to another Board of Regents report, One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence— recommendations he believed “tilt more towards factionalism than an intelligent respect for diversity.” Newspapers noted that Cuomo was especially displeased with the report’s reexamination of Columbus’s voyages to the Western Hemisphere and the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

What concerns me about the accusations made by Schlesinger, Ravitch, and Cuomo is that traditional social studies curriculum has been saturated with myths and morality plays designed to promote an uncritical patriotism — George Washington never told a lie, Davy Crockett conquered the west for a democratic United States, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves — and few prominent people have objected. Generally, students did not learn that George Washington was also a slaveholder and land speculator, that Davy Crockett died defending the “right” of Americans to bring slaves into Mexican territory, or that no slaves were actually freed when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Until the release of the movie, Glory, few people in the United States were aware that nearly two hundred thousand African-American

soldiers fought for the Union during the Civil War, helping to secure freedom for their people. Myth should not replace historical integrity, but a major problem is that, until recently, we have taught these myths to our students.

OneNation, Many Peoples endorses no specific historical position about Columbus or Thanksgiving. It argues, rather, that students must examine several versions of the stories to understand the perspectives of various groups of people and then to draw their conclusions. The report wants students to learn to think and act as historians, therefore becoming less prone to accepting uncritically another’s point of view or falling prey to myths about the past.

2. Promoting democratic values means developing antiracist, nonsexist curricula. The curricula must examine the contradictions that have always existed between the promise of “America” and the reality of life in the United States.

Ravitch, Schlesinger, and their supporters have challenged many multiculturalists for emphasizing difference over commonality — “pluribus” over “unum” — in U.S. history. Ravitch and Schlesinger’s defense of their “consensus school” interpretation of U.S. history has minimized the ethnic, racial, class, and gender conflicts that have plagued the nation. They offer, rather, a one-sided, essentially conservative picture of our nation’s history—a picture that does not fully explain the continuation of these problems.

Ravitch explains that her volume The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation(1991) does not include “those who preached disunion or hatred toward others” (xiii), which, as a result, minimizes the extent of racism and sexism in the United States. Rather than exploring or explaining U.S. history, then, the book celebrates a specific viewpoint. Ravitch tells us for example, that some early

U.S. leaders — Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay — opposed slavery. She neglects to mention, however, that still other leaders owned slaves themselves or prospered because of the slave trade. She discusses the hopes of immigrants coming to the United States, but not the nativism, discrimination, and exploitation they experienced. In her discussion of the 1960’s, Ravitch excludes Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, members of the Black Panther party, and other activists who believed that the United States was unalterably racist and would never respond to the legitimate demands of African Americans.

To be effective and to promote the democratic values that are such an important part of our country’s tradition, our curricula must be consciously anti-racist and nonsexist. We must identify and examine prejudice and stereotypes. Our students must explore the apparent contradiction between

the promise of “America” and the reality of life in the United States. They must ask themselves how a nation “conceived in liberty” could tolerate such injustice throughout its history.

3. Social history—the history of ordinary people, their cultures, and their contributions to the development of societies—provides an effective direction for ensuring a multicultural social studies curriculum.

Since the 1960s, social history has played an expanding role in the history profession’s understanding of the past.

Unfortunately, most public school social studies curricula continue to be based on political, economic, intellectual, and institutional history. The infusion of more social history into social studies curricula will both update the history taught in our schools and ensure a multicultural curriculum.

The social history of the United States is “history from the bottom up.” It focuses on the people—workers, women, ethnic minorities, immigrants—who built the nation. Social historians acknowledge that Africans, working as slaves, created much of the wealth that made possible the European settlement and development of the Western Hemisphere. Social historians recognize that although no African Americans or women helped write the Declaration of Independence, during the past 150 years, women and the descendants of Africans have led struggles to redeem its promise— to create a nation where all people are created equal.

Social historians also allow that men did not settle the continent by themselves. Men and women cleared the land, built the farms, and created this nation. Women raised children and worked in both homes and factories. As they struggled for the right to full citizenship, women helped organize our unions and win our wars.

Social history is multicultural education in its most genuine sense. Social history does not have to look for heroes to promote; its exploration of the United States is based on the notion that many people contributed to making the nation—not just presidents, generals, and “heroes.” For social historians, the history of the United States is the history of groups of people (Africans, Latinos, Native Americans, the Irish, Poles, Slavs, Italians, Germans, Jews, and the English), their relationship to one another, and our society as a whole.

4. We must recognize that multicultural education, although desirable, is not a panacea. It will not solve all of the problems of our schools and our society.

Some proponents of multicultural education offer its “relevance” as a panacea to our urban educational problems. They argue that multicultural curriculum revision is the missing ingredient that will make our children want to learn. This argument tends to ignore the past twenty years of experience in New York City, where educational performance has declined despite efforts by the central board of education to inject minority history and culture into the curriculum.

The problems facing U.S. schools and society have deep social and economic roots. Multicultural education does not address AIDS, crack, teenage pregnancy, crime, violence, unemployment, federal neglect, and urban decay. The electronic media have replaced the printed page as the primary source of information, so young people are less inclined to read. In a shrinking economy, a diploma no longer ensures a decent standard of living, so students do not invest in learning. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, the gaps between rich and middle income, and between middle income and poor, grew, further compounding these trends. The working class and poor young people have little hope of improving the conditions of their lives and, as a result, are reluctant even to try. In the midst of all of this, the influence of curriculum revision is going to be limited.

5. No curriculum is inherently interesting. Learning multicultural social history, including the history of family, friends, and neighbors, can be boring and unproductive if it is taught in unimaginative ways.

New York City and New York State have tried to revise and expand the social studies curriculum to reflect the new knowledge and ways of looking at the world generated by social historians. City and state social studies curricula highlight the contributions of various groups of people to our country, and the strengths and problems inherent in a multicultural society. Curriculum revision by outside authority, however, does not ensure its inclusion by teachers; many of these changes have not made their way into social studies classroom. Curricula produced by the New York State Education Department are not mandatory and many teachers have a limited knowledge of history. Further, lecturing about a multicultural society or distributing worksheets about the contributions of minorities is as uninteresting to young people as lecturing or distributing worksheets about anything else.

Teachers need to be educated about the past and about the materials available for use in their classrooms. Teachers will need training in cooperative learning, project development, conflict resolution, alternative assessment and portfolio evaluation, interdisciplinary studies, teaching creative thinking and expanding writing in the curriculum. Teacher education will take money and an investment in our schools that our cities, states, and the nation have been unwilling to commit to in the past.

6. Concern for promoting democratic processes means broadening the multicultural debate, not limiting it to the experts.

Throughout our history, U.S. citizens have been divided along ethnic, racial, gender, class, and ideological lines. James Madison called these divisions “factions” and saw them as essential for guaranteeing liberty.

Instead of blaming multiculturalists for politicizing education, we should recognize that educational policy and curriculum decisions have always been shaped by politics. Our goal should be to open the debate to teachers, parents, students, and other citizens. Expanded debate has the potential to reinvigorate democracy in the United States and to heal deep wounds.

The debate over multicultural education is part of the debate over what our children will learn and what type of society we want in the United States. It is too important to be delegated to experts. Experts should undertake research, write history, and design effective lesson plans. Decisions about what should be taught in our schools, however, must be made based on democratic principles and involve our entire society. It is through this involvement that phrases like “We hold all these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal” and “e pluribus unum” will become meaningful.