Seeing the Other Side When Students Use Multiculturalism to Fence off Sections of Academic Turf as Exclusively Their Own, Learning and Inquiry Are Blocked

Article excerpt

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 large.

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 suspect.

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 peers. …


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