School Wars: A Brief History of Multiculturalism in America

Article excerpt

Recent proposals that U.S. schools and colleges give greater emphasis to the history and accomplishments of America's racial and ethnic minorities--become more "multicultural"--have generated an intense public debate. None of the leading critics of a multicultural curriculum--neither Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., author of The Disuniting of America, nor Diane Ravitch, the educational historian and former assistant secretary of education, nor Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers--argues against a healthy diversity that acknowledges the varied sources of the American people and its culture. Still, all see a multicultural curriculum as a threat to the way we live together in a common nation.

Specifically, the critics envisage the possibility that large sections of the American population, particularly poor racial and ethnic groups that have been subjected to discrimination, will receive an education that attributes blame for their condition to the white or European majority and thereby worsens political and social splits along racial and ethnic lines. The gravest fear is that "oppression studies," as opponents label multiculturalism, will cultivate an active hostility among some minorities to the key institutions of state and society, making effective government, as well as the economic progress of such groups, more difficult.

To its critics, multiculturalism looks like a very new thing in American education. In many respects, it is. However, viewed in the long stretch of the history of American public schooling, we can recognize it as a new word for an old problem: how public schools are to respond to and take account of the diversity of backgrounds of their students--religious, ethnic, racial. U.S. public education, at least that part of it in our major cities, has rarely been free of this issue. For some decades. between the decline of European immigration in the 1920s and the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s, we were free of it. Undoubtedly, this halcyon period, during which many of the chief participants in the debate were themselves educated, colors their view of the current dispute.

As Old as Urban Public Schools

With the origins of urban public education in the 1840s, the first of the "great school wars," as Diane Ravitch calls them in her history of New York City public education, broke out. That first war centered on the demands of Catholic leaders for something like equal treatment for Catholic students in public schools whose principal aim was to socialize children into the Protestant moral and religious world of the mid-19th century. Catholic religious leaders objected in particular to readings from the Protestant King James Bible. Why not the Catholic Douay translation? (No one dreamed, in those distant days, that the First Amendment to the Constitution, with its prohibition of an "establishment of religion," would in time be used to ban all Bible reading in schools.) The outcome of the conflict was that Catholics decided to establish their own schools, to the degree their capacities allowed, and created a separate, Catholic system of education in the major cities of the country.

In the 1880s and 1890s, bitter public disputes broke out about the rights of the children of German immigrants to receive instruction in German. Teaching in German was widely established in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and elsewhere, to the discomfort of nativists and those concerned with the assimilation of immigrants. In 1889, the historian David Tyack tells us, Illinois and Wisconsin "tried to regulate immigrant private and parochial schools by requiring that most instruction be conducted in English. As in the case of Protestant rituals in the schools, the contest over instruction in languages other than English became a symbolic battle between those who wanted to impose one standard of belief and those who welcomed pluralistic forms of education."

World War I, with its encouragement of a fierce national (or was it ethnic? …