The Debate Over Multicultural Education In America

The Debate Over Multicultural Education in America 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. 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 follows: 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 …