The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Multiculturalism

By Famularo, Thomas J. | USA TODAY, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Multiculturalism


Famularo, Thomas J., USA TODAY


IT IS ALONG ideological lines that the debate over multiculturalism has assumed its current form and substance. Thomas Sowell, in Inside American Education, states that the "ideological components of multiculturalism can be summarized as a cultural relativism which finds the prominence of Western civilization in the world or in the schools intolerable." Recently, this anti-West aspect of multiculturalism was evidenced at Yale University, where a $20,000,000 grant by Texas billionaire Lee M. Bass, exclusively for the development of programs and courses in Western culture, met highly politicized faculty opposition, with the result that Yale returned the money.

John O'Sullivan, editor of National Review, decries the multiculturalist assertion that America is an "idea rather than a nation [possessing] a distinctive but encompassing American identity." Peter W. Cookson, Jr., author of School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education, offers the insight that multiculturalism's hostility to the West and repudiation of an identifiable American culture is augmented by a radically new definition of community, one that swerves from the traditional emphasis on "family, neighborhood, church, lodge, and school to race, gender, occupation, and sexual preference."

These ideological divisions within U.S. society threaten to rend the nation into hostile factions. For example, Richard Bernstein, in Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future, brands ideological multiculturalists as "radical-left inhabitants of a political dreamland." Its critics maintain that multiculturalism is not--and never can be--a viable educational principle.

A few points of clarification regarding multiculturalism's recent evolution might be helpful. What began during the early part of this century as a shift towards increased awareness of ethnic and minority contributions to American history has evolved into a pedagogy that makes diversity and difference the prime movers of the curriculum.

In response to the New York State Department of Education's A Curriculum of Inclusion (1989), Diane Ravitch, writing in The American Scholar (Summer 1990), argued that current manifestations of multiculturalism extend far beyond the kind of pluralism that "seeks a richer common culture" to "multicultural particularism," which denies that a "common culture is possible or desirable."

According to the authors of A Curriculum of Inclusion, including controversial City University of New York (CUNY) former Black Studies chairman Leonard Jeffries, multiculturalism no longer should be construed to mean "adding marginal examples of `other' cultures to an assumed dominant culture." On the contrary, multiculturalists adamantly gainsay the idea of an identifiable and definable American culture that might form the basis of a core curriculum. "The old curriculum is essentially based on the premise that America has one cultural heritage augmented by minor contributions from other peoples who by and large have presented `problems' to the primary culture. To combat teaching and learning based on this premise, a radical, new approach to building a curriculum is needed," A Curriculum of Inclusion claims. Multicultural particularism, counters Ravitch, "is a bad idea whose time has come. It is also a fashion spreading like wildfire through the education system."

As multiculturalism is infused into mainstream American public education, I am reminded of a question asked by a former Brooklyn College colleague which captures the ultimate unfeasibility of multicultural education: "What comes out?" Although learning should be lifelong, schooling is a finite process. Inevitably, additions to the curriculum made in the name of diversity and inclusion render the necessity of displacement. A curriculum can contain just so much, and because education succeeds only when it includes prolonged and in-depth consideration of specific books, authors, ideas, and historical events, more in education often is less. …

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