Finding Common Ground: Citizenship Education in a Pluralistic Democracy

Article excerpt


The transformation of American society into a more inclusive, tolerant, civil, and participatory democracy depends in part on the ability of the multicultural movement and its allies to articulate a vision of American citizenship capable of inspiring loyalty and commitment to ideals and principles that are able to unify Americans even while acknowledging and honoring their deepest differences. It is the judgment of the author that multiculturalism has not yet met this challenge. This article describes an effort by educators and citizens to cultivate a commitment to shared ideals and principle within the context of our diverse and democratic society.

In a previously published article, we agreed with advocates of multiculturalism that the traditional "socialization" approach to citizenship education in K-12 public schools had typically been too uncritical in its presentation and appraisal of American history, society, and culture (Grelle and Metzger, 1996). With its overriding emphasis on the transmission of society's prevailing values and the preservation of society's dominant institutional arrangements, the standard socialization approach is often guilty of downplaying historical conflicts and social controversies and of ignoring injustices and inadequacies of our economic and political institutions. Such an approach is inadequate insofar as it is grounded in and perpetuates 1) an overly narrow and Eurocentric definition of the curriculum, 2) an overly instrumental view of teachers as technicians (along with the corresponding view of students as passive recipients of pre-determined knowledge), and 3) an overly narrow and uncritical conception of what it means to be a citizen in America's pluralistic democracy.

In response to the curricular inadequacies of the socialization approach, advocates of multiculturalism have proposed rethinking the canon upon which the school curriculum is based. It is not that critics of Eurocentrism deny the importance of European texts, experiences, and perspectives in shaping American history and society. What the critics do deny is that these European contributions are identical with and definitive of what it means to be an American. Essentially, critics of the standard socialization approach to citizenship education argue that America is not now and never has been a nation with a homogeneous people,culture, or religion. Rather, the United States has always been a pluralistic nation consisting of many different religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. Instead of continuing to legitimate the values and privileges of the dominant social groups in America by giving pride of place in the curriculum to European (and more specifically, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male) constructions of identity, the curriculum of public schools should be restructured to more adequately reflect the diverse experiences, perspectives, and identities of all of America's religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. Advocates of multiculturalism insist that every level of the school curriculum should reflect this pluralistic reality. Insofar as the traditional curriculum fails to adequately encompass or address the histories, experiences, and contributions of the diverse communities to which our students themselves belong, it fails in its task of providing them with the intellectual and cultural resources that empower them to claim and exercise full citizenship.

In addition to the problem of a narrowly interpreted curriculum, the standard socialization approach has also had a tendency to encourage an overly instrumental conception of the role of teachers, and a passive rather than active conception of student learning. In the words of Henry Giroux (1988), the citizenship transmission approach encourages teachers to adopt the view of "teachers-as-- technicians" whose task is to impose a predetermined body of knowledge upon passive and unsuspecting students. As we discussed in our earlier article, the classroom practice of teacher-technicians is typically characterized by a never-ending race to cover content, by a capitulation to (admittedly massive) pressures to allow externally developed tests to dictate curriculum, and by the imposition upon students of singular and over simplified perspectives on what are often complex theories, concepts, and historical events. …