Immigration, Multiculturalism, and American History

By Fuchs, Lawrence H. | National Forum, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Immigration, Multiculturalism, and American History


Fuchs, Lawrence H., National Forum


While unprecedented numbers of immigrant children and American-born children of immigrants are entering high schools in the United States, an increasing number of educators are embracing a faddish version of multiculturalism that sometimes results in the teaching of bad American history and often ignores or denigrates the unum to elevate the pluribus.

This ethnocentric approach to multiculturalism is leading to a proliferation of demands by ethnic-immigrant group leaders to be included in the curriculum--an obvious impossibility in cities of high immigration. In Los Angeles, individuals who consider themselves to be Chinese actually come from a half-dozen different countries, and even those from mainland China speak at least five different languages. In Washington, DC, there are high school students from Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and many West Indian countries. Should they all get a footnote in the text, if not a picture? The main trouble with a representational ethnocentric approach to curriculum is not that it is bound to leave out somebody, but that it asks no significant unifying questions about the relationship of the many to the one.

To do that, courses in American history, civics, and social studies must ask questions about the requirements of the unum. Unfortunately, even college-level courses rarely ask these questions. In 1985, I examined the syllabi of sixty college courses dealing with ethnicity in American life (not counting black studies courses) taught at twenty-six universities and colleges. I found that, although many had great merit, none of them focused on the relationship of the unum to the pluribus (seventeen of them were monoethnic, with the largest number--seven--dealing with Mexican-Americans). None attempted to enlarge our understanding of ethnicity and race in the United States in relation to the polity as a whole. None asked: "What does it mean to be an American?" or "What holds Americans together as a nation, in all their diversity?"

Crossing the Boundaries of Group Pluralism

What is needed is a civic-centered curriculum to teach students that group pluralism in the United States is voluntary, enabling those who choose to live their lives with strong attachments to their ethnic communities to do so but also to teach them that Americans have the right to cross ethnic and even

racial boundaries.

The Common Ideals

A civic-centered approach to U.S. history would show students from all over the world that we are not merely a collection of ethnic communities, but a nation with common ideals of liberty and equality whose laws and institutions embody those ideals. The students of Tiananmen Square who raised a replica of the Statue of Liberty and the millions in other countries who seek to live in the United States (about two and a half million are now backlogged on immigration waiting lists) understand that.

Anyone who doubts the power of the ideals of liberty and equality of opportunity should spend time at naturalization ceremonies. One newly naturalized immigrant from Vietnam, who used to call her son "you American" with a touch of envy, said she looked to American history to make her realize that it was possible to become a loyal American and still love Vietnamese culture. "I feel I have something new to give to this country. There were the Irish, the Germans, Italians, Chinese, and Cubans, and now the Vietnamese."

The Common Theme

The mass naturalization ceremonies, celebrations on July 4 and Thanksgiving, and especially the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, which one reporter called "a convocation of the common secular faith," constitute a triumph for at least the rhetoric of the civic culture. As another reporter put it after seeing New York subway passengers burst into patriotic song, "The Indian news dealer, the Haitian cabby, the Greek cook--with their energy and their dreams, they nourish and redeem a nation's soul. …

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