Transforming the Core Curriculum: A Requirement in Prejudice and Discrimination

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Transforming the Core Curriculum: A Requirement in Prejudice and Discrimination

Background

In the Fall of 1988 the State University of New York College at Cortland instituted a requirement in Prejudice and Discrimination as a component of its General Education program. This initiative is part of an educational reform movement that began in this country more than forty years ago. Labelled "multicultural education" at the primary and secondary educational levels (Gollnick 1), this movement is often referred to as "curriculum transformation" (Mahlstedt and Bloom 67) in American higher education. These terms describe an educational approach that rejects an assimilationist Anglo-conformity model (Gordon 85) and is based instead upon the tenets of cultural pluralism (Tesconi 88).

Over the years numerous reasons have been offered for infusing multiculturalism into our nation's schools. Potential short-term benefits include recognizing the contributions of non-dominant group members to our society (Gollnick 14) and preparing students to function more effectively in diverse environments (Gezi 5). Eventual long-term benefits may include equitable educational and achievement opportunities for all individuals (Lynch 8).

Such arguments helped stimulate curriculum transformation efforts at Cortland College. For example, it had become clear that students were grossly uninformed regarding the contributions of people of color and women to our society. Similarly, they had little understanding of the civil rights issues raised in the 1960's and often demonstrated unthinking opposition to institutional attempts to change existing stratification patterns. Also, acts of bigotry against ethnic students, women and other non-dominant group members were not uncommon. As one response, the College decided in the mid-1980's to add to its core curriculum a requirement that would focus explicitly on the topics of prejudice and discrimination.

It is important to note that conditions at the College were not ideal for mounting major curriculum reform. For instance, Cortland College had a relatively poor record of dealing with ethnic and gender issues, was characterized by a very low proportion of faculty, staff and students of color, and faced annually the prospect of shrinking resources. In short, conditions were similar to those that existed--and exist currently--at many other public colleges. Still, the Cortland College case demonstrates that a non-traditional General Education category can be incorporated into a fairly conventional liberal arts scheme, without an excessive influx of new resources.

Curriculum Transformation in the National Context

Since the 1960's educators have increasingly recognized the need for a more inclusive curriculum in American colleges. This issue has produced an enormous literature that shares three common assumptions:

1) The curriculum in American colleges has been androcentric and Eurocentric for far too long. As George Joseph, Vasu Reddy and Mary Searle-Chatterjee (1990) point out, no reasonable person would consider ethnocentrism a legitimate academic approach (1). Still, virtually all of our knowledge has been dominated by a male-focused, Western European perspective. Joseph, Reddy and Searle-Chatterjee enumerate the consequences of this domination, including damage to non-European societies, the legitimization of an international system of inequality, and the impoverishment of disciplines (1-2). Another consequence is the damage that may result to students who do not identify easily with this perspective.

2) At least in part, this traditionally-based curriculum is responsible for the difficulty non-mainstream students have succeeding in American higher education. This assumption reflects the belief that a male-focused, Eurocentric perspective conveyed in the classroom becomes a critical part of the overall campus climate, to the extent that students who cannot identify with this perspective become at risk academically. …