Although multicultural education can be conceptualized in many different ways, it generally aims at enabling students from diverse cultures to learn how to transcend their cultural borders and engage in dialogue and action with people who differ from them in significant ways. Its more progressive versions also promote ideals of equity, social justice, social transformation, and active citizenship (Banks 1991; Gorski 2000). In this sense, multicultural education is closely related to approaches such as citizenship education, education for conflict resolution, global education, peace education, human rights education, anti-racist education, intercultural education, transformative learning, critical pedagogy, and multidimensional citizenship education (Ichilov 1998; Kymlicka 1995; Mezirow 2000; Parker et al. 2000; Selby 2002; Toh & Cawagas 2001).
In contrast to the traditional civics curriculum that focuses on the passive acquisition of the procedural and legal aspects of political institutions, and from the character development emphasis of moral education approaches, multicultural education and related approaches encompass a much wider and holistic perspective that emphasizes value clarification, intercultural dialogue, and active participation.
In the United States, multicultural education began to take off after the "No One American" statement released by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education in 1972. Since then, much controversy has been generated by multicultural education, garnering supporters and detractors inside and outside educational institutions. Supporters of multicultural education argue that it promotes cultural diversity and global tolerance (the ideal of 'e pluribus unum'), and overcomes the shortcomings and the elitism of the traditional Eurocentric curriculum. They also contend that a multicultural curriculum is essential to the survival of democratic political systems in increasingly pluralistic societies, as it instills among learners mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance by recognizing commonalties among all peoples while appreciating human differences (Shor 1987; Banks 1994).
Its detractors, instead, claim that multicultural education is divisive because it enforces ethnic quotas in the curriculum, it hinders assimilation efforts, and it creates unnecessary antagonism among different groups. They also accuse multicultural education of eroding the traditional canon of the disciplines, diminishing the quality of a good liberal education, and confusing immutable traits like race and national origins with learned attributes like culture (Bloom 1994; Bernstein 1994; D'Souza 1991; Grant 1994; Chavez 1994).
Despite the obvious disagreements between advocates and detractors of multicultural citizenship education, they tend to have one element in common. More often than not, their analyses tend to focus on the philosophical, political, and pedagogical dimensions of the prescribed curriculum, ranging from debates about the weight assigned to particular topics to the expected outcomes of a particular program of study. I would like to suggest that a comprehensive analysis of multicultural citizenship education programs can be assisted by an exploration of a variety of curricula that interact simultaneously.
The term curriculum is referred to in the dictionary as the courses offered by an educational institution, a set of courses constituting an area of specialization, or a specific course or program. Because the word has kept its original Latin form, it suggests to the general public something of a highly technical and obscure nature, whose meaning is only accessible to experts (e.g., curriculum developers). In more vernacular terms, the curriculum can be understood as what is taught, what is learned, how it is taught, and how it is learned.
Hence, as the sociology of curriculum has suggested, the study of any curriculum does not consist only of a straightforward analysis of the prescribed content, but of a more complex process that takes into consideration the nature and impact of different curricula. …