THE war of words on multicultural education concerns me as a
historian and a teacher. The divisive "isms" are the problem:
tribalism versus Anglo-Saxonism. Conformism versus elitism.
Particularism versus multiculturalism.
These words are not teaching tools. They encourage a
territoriality, a commodification of curricular content that
inhibits the process of education.
Ironically, the current belief that "My history is most
important" seems the appropriate finale to the "me decade." It
threatens the dynamic interaction between questions and answers that
gives life to education.
This year I taught two courses to high school seniors, one on
race issues and the other on gender. My experience illustrates some
of the classroom complexity that gets lost in the debate about what
information the kids in the classroom need to know.
One course, The Black Experience in White America, was nearly
"PC-perfect." I, (white female historian) co-taught it with a
colleague (black male teacher of religion and English). The class
consisted of black nationalists who identified with the plight of
the urban poor; other blacks who identified with the successful
struggle of the black middle class; another African-born black whose
experience was distinct from either American-born black nationalists
or black individualists. In addition, around the same seminar table
sat a Hindu, a Muslim, a southern white student, three white sons of
New Hampshire, and a blossoming female feminist. Diversity writ
What happened? Not much education. But much frustration.
The course was hampered partly by an absence of inquiry. Students
came with firm ideas about black/white issues and refused to read
texts openly. One segment of students announced the first week of
class that Martin Luther King Jr. was an Uncle Tom and that Malcolm
X was the real hero for blacks.
Some American blacks did not want to study the slave community
and the cultural resistance to slavery as this resistance was not
what they would have advocated - armed rebellion.
The African-born black cried as he read the account of the
kidnapping and enslaving of an African child in the 16th century
because the events took place near where he grew up.
Most of the class thought the autobiography we read of a black
civil rights worker was boring. The heroine was "messed up" and thus
One black nationalist was irritated that the Hindu and Muslim
students of color "claimed" the black experience of oppression,
since it was not theirs.
The black individualists were irritated we spent so much time on
oppression and did not focus on black achievements.
The struggling feminist tried unsuccessfully to point out the
sexism in the texts - but no one made room for her comments.
Events were further restricted by the absence of trust among