Learning & Living Difference That Makes a Difference: Postmodern Theory & Multicultural Education

By Jacobs, Walter R. | Multicultural Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning & Living Difference That Makes a Difference: Postmodern Theory & Multicultural Education


Jacobs, Walter R., Multicultural Education


RECENTLY A COLLEAGUE and I discussed the apparently thorough-going "politically correct" racial discourse in her predominantly White lower-level university class. Her "Blues in Shifting Cultural Contexts" students, it seems, passionately argue that early 20th century American blues (performed almost exclusively by African-- Americans) is the most "authentic" period, but are equally adamant that "the Blues" is not an African-American art form, that anyone can perform it, as all Americans have equal rights and a common non-discriminatory cultural core. The students, further, wondered why their White instructor thought it was so important to talk about the racial determinants of music production and reception, arguing that they should be allowed to just enjoy "music for everyone" produced in a multicultural society.

Multiculturalism-guidelines for life in a diverse pluralist democratic society-- it seems, is the ability to freely appreciate and consume the cultures of Others, in the process erasing any trace of social stratification and inequality that is lived reality of those Others.

Christopher Newfield and Avery F. Gordon (1996) argue that this is an example of multiculturalism as "assimilationist pluralism," where multiple groups may have unique sub-cultures but are (and should be) unified by common core principles to which all should aspire. Difference is acknowledged, but only on a superficial, decorative level. In the case of my colleague, then, she should stress that music is the process of influences on a soon-to-be level playing field, that all should be allowed to access the cultures of Others regardless of background or experiences in the attempt to form a common American culture.

Newfield and Gordon argue that as America becomes an even more multicultural society difference must be theorized more completely to examine destructive as well as productive manifestations. Multiculturalism must be recast from a fusion of pluralism and assimilationism to one of pluralism and cultural nationalism (moving toward one people), where groups function significantly as both separate entities and as "Americans" in ever-shifting configurations. In this operationalization, multiculturalism

takes a multicentered national cultural as encompassing the intersectionality of race with the range of the identities and forces in addition to race that comprise social life. It supports race consciousness along with anti-essentialist notions of identity and social structure, and refines our understanding of the way racial and other dimensions of culture influence even apparently neutral institutions. And it puts political equity at the center of any discussion of cultural interaction. (Newfield & Gordon 1996:107)

Such a project is a multiculturalism that not only informs Americans about inequalities in American society, but seeks to transform it. Multiculturalism that transforms as well as informs is the needed next stage in multiculturalism's long history (Davis 1996). How, though, can we actualize this theoretical dictum?

In this article I offer a strategy, arguing that applying postmodern theory to Newfield and Gordon's (and others in Gordon & Newfield 1996) transformative understanding of multiculturalism provides us with a "multiculturalism [that] would simply make real cultural pluralism do what it says it means. That in itself would make quite a difference" (Newfield & Gordon 1996: 109).

I will juxtapose each point in Newfield and Gordon's transformative multiculturalism project-multicentered culture, anti-essentialist race consciousness, and political equity-with aspects of a postmodern theorization of American society as a consumer-driven economy saturated with multiple mediated fragmented, unstable, constantly-evolving discourses and cultural interaction (Bertens 1995; Harvey 1989; Kellner 1995; Lury 1996; Seidman 1998).

I will empirically illustrate this theoretical construct with data from my research project of college classrooms as "subaltern counterpublics," which are spaces where students and instructors) "invent and explore counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (Fraser 1992: 123). …

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