Multicultural Education: Urban-Based Field Study for Learning about Diversity

Article excerpt

Abstract: Educators, business leaders, government representatives, and community groups recognize the need for college graduates who understand the nature and social construction of human differences, and who can be effective as professionals in an increasingly diverse society. This article describes a college-level course on urban affairs centered around diversity, multicultural education, and field-based learning, broadly applicable to the curriculum in Family and Consumer Sciences.

John Dewey (1986) laid an intellectual cornerstone for the idea that education is a powerful force for increasing the responsible involvement of the ordinary citizen in the everyday workings of democracy. Many others (e.g., Sniderman & Piazza, 1993) have shown that schooling itself, apart from the particular content taught, is one of the critical social sites for educating about human diversity through public policies of racial, ethnic, and gender integration, and the expansion of social and intellectual experiences that can follow. This experiential aspect of education forms the pedagogical basis for incorporating field study into courses on human diversity.

We offer, as one example, a description of a college-level course on urban affairs centered around field-based learning that emphasizes human diversity and the processes by which concepts of difference are created. (This approach to teaching urban affairs is illustrated through an internship and seminar program called The Urban Semester that is taught in New York City through Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.) First, we present some general ideas on diversity, multicultural education, and experiential learning, followed by a description of the urban affairs course. While urban affairs lends itself particularly well to a focus on diversity, the content of Family and Consumer Sciences curricula is rich with similarly appropriate content that could be linked to a study of ethnicity, gender, and other forms of human difference.

The Societal Value of Educating About Diversity

One central vision of American democracy embraces diversity as a valued characteristic of its citizenry under concepts of equal opportunity and fairness (Myrdal, 1944), yet its acceptance and realization at interpersonal and institutional levels remains unfulfilled. This situation is no less true in the higher education environment than elsewhere in society. For example, living arrangements and social relations among students on college campuses reflect an unresolved struggle between the equally valid objectives for forced integration (to broaden understandings of human difference) and voluntary segregation (to provide support and choice) among different racial and ethnic groups. Our society has yet to forge a political consensus or develop effective institutional mechanisms that link a multi-ethnic and multicultural population with communal human values and experiences At a societal level, there is enormous division over the extent to which historical patterns of discrimination should constitute an explicit political agenda. Public backlash against perceived entitlements to protection and redress (e.g., affirmative action) creates a palpable tension in public discourse as well as in the classroom (Graft 1992).

Misunderstanding about the value of diversity is exacerbated by media portrayals in which human differences are equated with conflict, disintegration, and danger. Examples include urban and domestic violence; confrontations between groups based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation; and competition for the moral high ground on matters such as "family values."The result is that for many people the idea of diversity connotes a threat to personal safety and social survival.

For these reasons, the terms "diversity" and "multicultural" carry highly charged and varied meanings in our society. On the positive side, they include a commitment to equal opportunity, empowerment, and redress of historical discrimination, as well as an enrichment of educational material through broader understanding of human differences and how these differences are psychologically and socially constructed. …