Call for a Multicultural Curriculum Stirs Up Controversy in New York
Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
HISTORY may change in as little as a year or two for public-school students in the state of New York. A panel of educators recently recommended a blueprint for revising the state's curriculum to embrace "multicultural education," an inclusive approach that emphasizes the historical roles of nonwhite cultures.
If the panel's ideas are adopted, students would be taught that Christopher Columbus didn't discover America; he sailed to an already inhabited land.
Thanksgiving, they would learn, isn't simply a traditional national holiday of gratitude and celebration; some cultural groups - such as native Americans - believe it should be a day of mourning. Classes would discuss the matter.
Some of the changes would involve tinkering with language. Slaves would be referred to as "enslaved persons to "call forth the essential humanity of those enslaved" and avoid the impression that slavery was a chosen role such as "gardener, cook, or carpenter."
The term "Far East" would be replaced by "East Asia" and "the Middle East" would become "Southwest Asia and North Africa."
The 24-member panel's report, "One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence," was released late last month. Thomas Sobol, who convened the panel of scholars and teachers, praised the report as "thoughtful, scholarly, constructive." But he has not outlined what aspects of the report might or might not be used in a revised curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12.
An earlier report, "Curriculum of Inclusion," which was released in July 1989, used inflammatory language to make similar recommendations. It charged that the present curriculum was filled with "hidden assumptions of white supremacy" and that minorities had "been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression." In the ensuing controversy, Commissioner Sobol appointed another, broader-based panel to provide a second opinion on the issue.
"This is a better report," says Nathan Glazer, professor of sociology at Harvard University and one of the panelists. "It does not take as extreme or critical a view of 'Eurocentric' education or as extreme a position in advocating 'Afrocentric' or group-oriented education."
But the new report is also stirring up controversy. Gov. Mario Cuomo has warned that the panel's recommendations have the potential for racial divisiveness. "You'll start dividing people; you'll start developing antagonisms if you're not careful," he said.
Three professors who served on the panel included dissenting opinions with the report. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winner and a humanities professor at the City University of New York, wrote: "It is surely not the office of the public school to promote ethnic separatism and heighten ethnic tensions. …