Dimensions of Multicultural Education: Implications for Higher Education

Article excerpt

A great deal of public and professional attention has been paid in recent years to the topic of multicultural education. Divergent views on its scope and meaning have been expressed in the popular press as well as in the journals of learned societies. Yet much misunderstanding remains about the scope and intent of bringing multicultural perspectives to the curricula of this nation's universities.

Some of this misunderstanding has been engendered by such critics of multicultural education as Arthur Schlesinger (The Disuniting of America, 1991 ) and Dinesh D' Souza (Illiberal Education, 1991) who allege that incorporating various cultural and gender perspectives into the curricula will result in a dilution of the traditional Western canon of knowledge. Another concern that these critics have voiced is that the multiple perspectives examined in multicultural classrooms will somehow "disunite" these highly United States. In order to address these criticisms, some definition and discussion of the scope of the field of multicultural education are needed.

Multicultural Education: Parameters

Multicultural education attempts to present knowledge in a manner that reflects the cultural and gender perspectives that are relevant to a subject. A simple rationale for this position is that, with few exceptions, heterogeneity rather than homogeneity of perspectives is more reflective of reality. Multicultural education does not (as some have alleged) attempt to remove Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dante, Melville, or Dickens from their well-deserved places in the pantheon of great historical or literary figures. It does, however, propose that education go well beyond the significant accomplishments of these men and that academic knowledge be examined with both a laudatory and a critical eye. Only when this occurs does the curriculum begin to represent the reality of the subjects it purports to convey. Multicultural education, like any other emerging academic field, should not be defined by its critics who did not generate their scholarship in this area and/or would like to see it fade from the academic landscape. Suggestions that multicultural education will disunite Americans rest on the premises that (a) the "glue" that binds us together will dissolve if a broad knowledge base is made accessible and (b) great unity exists in all sectors of American society.

The stability of American nationality cannot rest on a monocultural knowledge base. We cannot trust unity to ignorance of diversity. Multicultural education's emphasis on including cultural and gender perspectives in a curriculum is a step toward unity with sectors of American society that currently feel alienated. This is precisely the opposite of what its critics argue. Traditionalists in education were content to largely ignore multicultural education as long as it was a fledgling movement. When multicultural perspectives began to be considered more seriously, traditionalists responded with vigor as they realized that multicultural education was presenting new knowledge and perspectives that in turn were causing a reanalysis of a largely monocultural curriculum.

The Knowledge Construction Process

Academic knowledge has historically been presented as rooted in empiricism and objectivity. James A. Banks, in Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice, suggests that knowing the assumptions, perspectives, and possible biases that may affect a discipline is also extremely important.

One example of this in history is the presence of national bias in the teaching of a historical event that involved several nations. In the field of medicine, various national studies on illnesses have been done with largely male patient populations. The results were extrapolated to female patients. We have since learned that these extrapolations were often inaccurate.

Faculty who are presenting multicultural dimensions in their respective subjects must also realize that these perspectives are frequently new to many students and often clash with long-held beliefs. …