Multiculturalism - Education for the Nineties an Overview

By Pyszkowski, Irene S. | Education, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview
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Multiculturalism - Education for the Nineties an Overview


Pyszkowski, Irene S., Education


As we know, America's school population is marked by diversity and multiculturism. Students attending schools in the United States come from many different kinds of families; single parent, teen-age parent, extended family and traditional nuclear family. Moreover a wide array of cultural differences reflected in racial and ethnic diversity exist in many classrooms today. The "melting pot" concept has been replaced by cultural pluralism. How can the needs of a pluralistic society best be met and how can stereotyped opinions of any culture be countered in our classrooms today?

In the first half of the 20th century educators tried to give students a national identity through the melting pot approach; a concept promoted in a play written by Israel Zangwill in 1908. Zangwill advanced the idea that the entire U.S. population would assimilate and form a unique American character. This ideology, so widespread at the time, became an integral part of the American educational system.

The aim of the schools was to "melt" ethnically different children into the American culture as quickly as possible (Banks). To expedite assimilation children were forced to forget their native customs, languages and heritages and to adopt the culture and language of a new nation of people (Berry).

Education for all students centered on Western culture, a "Eurocentric" view of the world and its culture. The bulk of immigrants coming to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were from European countries; particularly southern and eastern Europe.

Textbooks used by children of these immigrants contained ideas of western civilization with emphasis on Anglo-Saxon history and literature. A curriculum incorporating these concepts was developed over the years establishing a singular American culture and identity. Indeed ethnicity was suppressed. But the fact was that racial and ethnic stereotypes were perpetuated in the core curriculum and its accompanying texts while students were rapidly assimilated into the American mainstream.

Yet ethnic identity could not be easily dismissed. Most ethic groups still clung to their language, customs and culture. Glazer and Moynihan wrote, "Individuals, in very considerable numbers to be sure, broke out of their mold, but the groups remained." (Glazer and Moynihan). The notion of an American persona; the "Americanization" of all ethnics became less appealing as the century wore on.

Hannah Arendt, the great intellectual of the mid-twentieth century is reported to have described the United States as "an a-national republic ---." She conceived of the United States as a place where the melting pot was not even an ideal, and that is what she liked about it (Shweder).

The diversity movement is a phenomenon resulting from the pronounced shift in the ethnic makeup of America's population. Auster writers, "Christmas has been replaced in many schools by a non-denominational Winterfest or by a new African-American holiday Kwanza, while schools in areas with large Hispanic populations celebrate Cinco de Mayo" (Auster). Ethnic groups revitalized their heritage as cultural identity and ethnic pride gained respectability.

The momentum of the "Black Movement" of the 1950's when Afro-americans fought for equality in the social, economic TABULAR DATA OMITTED and political arenas fueled the sparks for cultural pluralism. Impressed by the gains made by Afro-Americans; Puerto-Ricans, Mexican-Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans and other minority groups worked to bring about change in mainstream America.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, America's immigrant population has shifted from white European to non-white Asian and other minority groups. "It is estimated that by the year 2000, 33 percent of the U.S. student population will be from so-called minority groups," reports Francis Roberts. According to the 1990 census figures, Asian-Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing minority, accounting for 2.

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