Communitarianism and Multiculturalism in the Academy

By Theobald, Paul; Wood, Kathy L. | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Communitarianism and Multiculturalism in the Academy


Theobald, Paul, Wood, Kathy L., Journal of Thought


Like diversity and unity, communitarianism and multiculturalism are often thought to be at odds, oxymoronic concepts invoked to achieve different ends. The criticisms of multiculturalism are familiar enough--it will serve to "disunite" the nation and water down the curriculum of schools and universities. The criticisms of communitarianism, while less widely known, are stated with just as much vehemence--a focus on community-oriented policy or curriculum will "provincialize" the policy arena or the curriculum of the academy. According to their respective critics, in one instance we expand the human gaze too widely, in the other, too narrowly. This essay will attempt a kind of synthesis between two academic movements that at first glance appear to be at odds, focusing on the role each plays, or could play, in the creation and improvement of democratic processes.

The twentieth-century drive for civil rights in the United States, for affirmative action and other policies designed to end a wide variety of discriminatory practices, was not invoked under the rubric of "multiculturalism." That term entered the vocabulary of most Americans during the 1960s as a way to talk about educational reform. In fact, multiculturalism as an academic movement has been tightly connected to education, public education in particular, though contributions to it have come from virtually all corners of the academy and all corners of the globe. This has meant great visibility for the movement, for Americans are deeply concerned about what is taught in the nation's schools and universities: witness the maelstrom over the essay of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, or the heavy reprisals for professors who express their belief that the U. S. itself may have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Opponents of multiculturalism have published widely successful books with titles that leave little doubt about the author's antimulticultural stand. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for instance, condemned multiculturalism in his 1991 book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, also published in 1991, was an equally successful attack on multicultural studies. Alvin Schmidt's The Menace of Multiculturalism: Trojan Horse in America (1997) is an even more pointed attack. And one can find numerous websites sponsored by conservative political and religious groups, all attacking multiculturalism either as anti-American, anti-Christian, or both.

By contrast, communitarianism enjoys much less name recognition, much less popularity, and therefore much less organized opposition. This may be due in part to the fact that the targets of this movement have been primarily the economic market and the bureaucratic state, with the realm of education receiving only scant attention from major communitarian theorists. The essential thrust of their argument is that decisions made in current political and economic arenas are devoid of any attention to human community and the result has been deterioration in America's social fabric. While scholars have written about what economic policy would look like if it were made with the understanding that community is valuable, or how our government might function if it cared about community, few have had much to say about how communitarian theory might influence the policies and practices of K-12 or university education. We will have something to say about this, however. We should note here, too, that we will focus more on communitarianism than multiculturalism, due to our assumption that there is greater familiarity with the latter amongst the educational research community.

Our approach to making communitarian thought accessible to a broad spectrum of educators will be to provide a brief historical survey that identifies the probable antecedents to communitarianism. Following this, we will lay out an abbreviated account of the development of multicultural theory and then focus on a few of the problems associated with modern life and what the communitarian and multicultural responses to these problems might mean for contemporary society.

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