Similar Concerns, Different Perspectives of Social Studies and Multicultural Education

By Gay, Geneva | Social Studies Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Similar Concerns, Different Perspectives of Social Studies and Multicultural Education


Gay, Geneva, Social Studies Review


In many ways Multicultural Education is a broker for democracy within the context of schooling for ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse students, especially those who are underachieving and marginalized. It is naturally compatible with and complementary of Social Studies Education since a primary intention of the latter is to teach students knowledge, attitudes, values, ethics, and skills needed to be constructive citizens of democratic societies, and conscientious and caring members of communities. While many analysts readily admit that democracy is a vision that has not yet been fully realized for most people in the United States, or the country at large, the gaps between its philosophical ideals and socio-political realities are wider and more consequential for some groups and individuals than others. Multicultural Education is committed to eliminating these gaps by translating the key principles of democracy - that is, freedom, equality, justice, inclusion, and representation - into educational programs, policies, and practices for and about ethnically, racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups.

More than any other part of school curricula Social Studies is charged with helping students build coherence, cohesion, and community out of the diverse influences, ideas, peoples, heritages, and traditions that have converged in forming the United States. The task is to give genuine meaning to e pluribus unum, without sacrificing one for the other - to understand and appreciate how unity and diversity within the United States are complements of each other. Multicultural Education reactivates and give new meaning to some of the earlier interpretations of this country's claims of accepting diversity as a resource for democracy, not so much as a form of government but as a social contract for communal living among the different peoples who constitute the United States. It takes the position that diversity is inherent to the human birthright and socialized conditions, and any other subsequent structures or configurations fashioned out of this fundamental foundation, whether political, social, educational, or economic, should complement not contradict it. Therefore, a true democracy cannot be constructed by trying to sacrifice pluribus for unum as has sometimes been the case in past U. S. history. Instead, ethnic, racial, cultural, and social diversity must play a central role in educating students for the benefits and responsibilities of democracy.

Multicultural Education and Social Studies make several other common claims that demonstrate their close affinity. Three of these are discussed here to illuminate this relationship. Both disciplines endorse the idea that education for the masses is a condition, benefit, and responsibility of democracy. It is supposed to be the great equalizer across differences due to social class, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, language, and ancestral origins. This means that all students need to have a better understanding of themselves and others, the challenges and advantages of living in communion with others, and the obligations of individuals and collectives to make life better for everyone. Another part of this education is knowing when social norms and ideals are violated, by and toward whom, and how to engage in actions to eliminate the violations. For example, both Social Studies and Multicultural Education examine acts of racial oppression suffered by different ethnic groups (such as the Trail of Tears, slavery, the Japanese American internment, appropriation of Mexican and Native American lands), but the focus of analysis is somewhat different. While Social Studies curricula may present these as aberrations and exceptions in the U.S. rather glorious history and continuous progression toward democracy, Multicultural Education analyses view them as routine occurrences for groups victimized by them. Therefore, Social Studies tends to emphasize the majority privileged story (even though minority perspectives may not be excluded entirely), while Multicultural Education centralizes the various ethnic and racial groups' experiences and perspectives.

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Similar Concerns, Different Perspectives of Social Studies and Multicultural Education
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