The Impact of Multiculturalism on Liberal Education in America

Article excerpt

Declining Education and Inflaming Democratic Discourse

This essay addresses two problems that are intimately related. The first problem has become public knowledge: the decline in educational performance in the U.S.A. On this point, the results of one recent survey suffice. American high school seniors were asked to identify the half-century during which the American Civil War took place. A majority failed to answer correctly -- and this was a multiple-choice question. The same study revealed that a majority of American high school seniors, when presented with statements taken from either the United States Constitution or Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, could not identify which of the two texts was the source. It would seem that the two documents that, more than anything else, have shaped this century are virtually indistinguishable to most of today's American high school graduates.

The second problem is the decline in the civility with which public discourse is conducted. Not only is it getting more and more difficult for people to talk to each other, but even less do people listen, preferring a scorched-earth policy over discussion and compromise. From the universities, to the National Endowment for the Arts, to even the Boy Scouts, the culture clash between "traditional values" and "cultural diversity" is stretching democratic sensibilities nearly to the breaking point. On the Right, fear and anger are escalating in response to the perceived moral dissolution. On the Left, "bourgeois" notions of economic and political liberty are denounced as sham rationalizations in the service of class inequality. And from the most recent entrant into the fray, multiculturalism, we learn that mere toleration of diversity, the classical liberal solution, will no longer do: not toleration but nothing less than "celebration" must be the new moral imperative.

But if multiculturalists are unabashedly aggressive in their assaults on Western democracy, no less remarkable is the blanket passiveness with which their claims are met in American institutions of higher learning. The majority of my colleagues in the university, who believe in and practice mainstream liberalism, somehow find themselves intellectually and morally bound to support the multicultural agenda that is at this moment establishing ever more beachheads on the campuses. Or, if they do not support the new orthodoxy, they believe that their liberalism compels at least their silent acquiescence.

Is Opposition to Multiculturalism Bigotry?

At first glance, this is easy to understand. Among liberal Americans, who can be unsympathetic to multiculturalism's stated quest to give proper consideration to cultures other than America's own, and this as part of a larger project that aims both to broaden their vision and to abolish bigotry? Did not America's classical liberal Founders envision a society that practiced and cherished toleration? Given this, how could they object to the extension of this project to the universities? After all, liberal education at its deepest is the search for a common, basic human nature, unaffected by culture. In this search, liberal education can be the partisan of no particular culture, even of America's. Instead, it investigates and must investigate foreign ideas as well as cultures in its attempt to discover what it regards as the best, the most fully rational way of life.

As the above observations suggest, multiculturalism's quest to produce a people that "celebrates diversity" appears at first to be only a logical, if more committed, extension of the classical liberal project. And were this the case, one could simply identify multiculturalism with liberal education or, more precisely, one could aver that liberal education fosters and requires what I shall call "true multiculturalism" true openness to the teachings of other cultures. But the harmony between liberal education and the current version of multiculturalism is only apparent. …