Multiculturalism, Race, and Education

Article excerpt

This article considers arguments offered in the debate over multicultural education (MCE), noting that the concept has encountered support from enthusiasts of cultural diversity and opposition from those who believe it creates unhealthy divisions between groups. It reports on a telephone survey conducted in the Washington, D.C., area to examine the extent of support or opposition to MCE among Blacks and Whites (N = 348). Blacks' and Whites' attitudes toward interracial contact, MCE curricular issues, racial/ethnic stereotypes, quotas, and discrimination were compared. Strong support was found for the concept of MCE, but issues of implementation were more controversial; interracial differences were generally larger than interracial differences. A model incorporating variables to be considered in measuring attitudes toward MCE is proposed.

INTRODUCTION

The foundation and stability of democracy in the United States are based upon the credo of e pluribus unum: "out of many, one." Unfortunately, many uphold a parochial vision of this democracy as one in which the will of the majority overrides the rights of minorities. Recent attempts to undermine the pluralist mandate of a nation conquered by immigrants is only the latest irony in what has become a battle cry against the expressions of multiculturalism in U.S. public education. Conservative forces have sought to discredit scholars of multicultural education (MCE) as nothing short of professional hacks by denouncing the basic tenets of this concept as anti-educational and attacking pedagogy that goes beyond the primacy of a Eurocentric curriculum as "therapies whose function is to raise minority self-esteem" (Schlesinger, 1992, p. 17). Wong (1990) notes that conservative educational theorists believe an educational emphasis on multiculturalism creates a classroom climate quite different from that of the real world. Thus, in the conservatives' view, celebrating diversity betrays the true purpose of education.

Other scholars argue that a good deal of what presently passes under the banner of multiculturalism is intellectually dishonest; that it has a political agenda, not an academic one. This is the case made by Mattai (1992), who asserts that, in most cases,

...attempts to introduce multiculturalism into the curriculum appear to be political responses, and efforts to infuse the American educational curriculum with multiculturalism largely partisan activities engaging only those few who are committed to effecting significant educational and societal changes. Thus, after almost two decades of curricular engineering, a great deal of suspicion regarding the multicultural education movement exists among African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, many of whom presently raise serious questions about what the movement has done and/or failed to do for them. (p. 66)

In light of the dilemmas raised by these conflicting points of view, the present article has three objectives. The first is to review the major arguments for and against multiculturalism as an instrument for understanding questions associated with race as a perennial source of conflict in American education. This will be achieved by a thorough review and discussion of the literature on MCE. Our second objective is to analyze MCE's impact on societal expectations and its implications as a formal policy framework in the nation's public schools. Such an analysis also provides an opportunity to examine racial stereotypes and other issues that often divide Blacks and Whites such as quotas and affirmative action. This objective is achieved via our analysis of the results of a telephone survey, conducted in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area in 1992, which measured public attitudes toward MCE. Third, we will present a model of how these attitudes are influenced by sex, age, education, and other factors that are often presumed to affect racial attitude structures.

THE MULTICULTURALISM DEBATE

For many, MCE is simply an attempt to foster an appreciation for cultural diversity, with the overall goal of developing within students a sense of esteem for different cultures. …