United by Justice

By Hillis, Michael R. | Multicultural Education, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

United by Justice


Hillis, Michael R., Multicultural Education


When justice does not exist, God is not known; He is absent.

-Gustavo Gutierrez, 1973, p. 195

Teachers and students need to realize that justice does not already exist because laws exist. Justice needs to be continually created, constantly struggled for.

-Peter McLaren, 1994, p. 201

The 1960s saw the emergence of two movements, separated by geography and underlying assumptions, but which have had remarkably similar goals and premises. These two movements, multicultural education in the United States and liberation theology in Latin America, affirm the establishment of justice as a central thesis.

In multicultural education, scholars argue that one of the primary missions of education should be the creation of an active, political citizenry who will challenge the oppressive practices of society(McLaren, 1997). Through broad-based, democratic educational practice, students can come to an awareness of the debilitating effects of injustice and, subsequently, be given the tools with which to struggle for a more equitable nation (Campbell, 1996).

In a similar manner, liberation theologians assert that the church should be involved with individual, political, and societal change (Boff & Boff, 1984; Gutierrez, 1996; Segundo, 1976). Liberation theologians view the structures of capitalistic societies as oppressing and marginalizing the poor and that traditional theologies have aided in this exploitation. A theology, therefore, is needed that addresses the perspectives of the poor and the oppressed and that is dedicated to peace and justice. As one liberation theologian stated, "Peace, justice, love, and freedom are not private realities; they are not only internal attitudes. They are social realities, implying a historical liberation" (Gutierrez, 1996, p. 90).

Through this article, I will attempt to compare and contrast the goals and premises of multicultural education and liberation theology. I will begin with a brief historical look at the origins of the two fields. The focus of this historical inquiry will be to identify the context in which these two fields arose and the goals that were subsequently developed. In the second part of the article, I will explore how the process of knowledge construction informs both fields of study and the critical role it plays in developing the activities of its participants. To conclude, I will examine the connections between the two fields and what aspects multicultural education can incorporate from liberation theology.

The Emergence of the Movements

Multicultural Education

In the recent book, Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge and Action, James Banks (1996c) and his colleagues document the historical roots of multicultural education. Through an examination of social science research conducted by such distinguished scholars as W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, and Franz Boas, the authors reveal how the basic tenets and goals of multicultural education had been foreshadowed for many years. Although the present conceptualization of the field is certainly unique and specific to modern society, what Banks and his colleagues elaborate on is the intellectual history of multicultural education; a response, in part, to critics who claim the field is based on current preoccupations with political correctness and intellectual opportunity.

One historical legacy applicable to multicultural education is the emphasis on race relations, a field of study that has occupied a large segment of recent social science research in this country. This emphasis, however, has not always existed but instead has emerged as the climate of U.S. society has changed. Prior to the 1920s in the United States, for example, systematic inquiry into race relations was limited and the research that was conducted typically ignored how to facilitate interactions between different ethnic groups (Hillis, 1996b). During this period of time, the research focus attempted to demonstrate how Whites were the superior "race" (e. …

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