Reflections on Multicultural Education: A Teacher's Experience
Gaudelli, William, Multicultural Education
Multicultural education raises fundamental questions about the nature of schooling and social studies education. To what extent should schools reinforce prevalent perspectives about society; or, should schools challenge the existing norms of society? This question lies at the center of education in a democratic society. Multicultural education, more than any other curricular initiative in the past two decades, causes educators to confront fundamental questions directly.
Multicultural education is curriculum rooted in critique. As Nieto (1992) contends, "Multicultural education is a process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students. It challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society and accepts and affirms pluralism" (p. 4). Banks (1996) argues that multicultural education is not just a course of study, but a way of recentering educational discourse that focuses attention upon groups otherwise beyond the realm of traditional curricula.
Grant and Sleeter (1998) examine five approaches to teaching about diversity: teaching culturally different students, human relations, single-group studies, multicultural education and social reconstruction. Though these approaches are somewhat unique, each is premised on the notion that existing curricula need to be reformulated. An important premise in most of the scholarship about multiculturalism is clear: "...the belief that schools in a society can and should prepare citizens to work actively and collectively on problems facing society" (Grant & Sleeter, 1998, p.253).
A curriculum of critique this forceful and challenging to fundamental assumptions about schools and society was sure to cause a significant backlash. One of the most prominent controversies occurred in the New York City schools over the curricular framework, "One Nation, Many Peoples" (1991). Political ideology, pedagogy and notions of the common good were intertwined in this far-reaching debate that transcended social studies teachers and classrooms, yet placed them at the heart of the dispute.
The multicultural education movement had its share of critics. Schlesinger's provocative book, The Disuniting ofAmerica (1992), warned that ethnic factionalism and disintegration, phenomena that he asserted were promoted by multicultural education, would result from schools emphasizing differences. He wrote:
The ethnic revolt against the melting pot has reached the point, in rhetoric at least.. of a denial of the idea of a common culture and a single society. If large numbers of people really accept this, the republic would be in serious trouble. (p. 133)
Jackson (1991), writing in the "One Nation, Many People" report, criticized multicultural education as, "...poor strategy, poor history, and poor logic.. to bemoan the 'Anglo' culture..." while operating within it (p. 39).
As the debate over multiculturalism progressed, I worked with an English teacher, Nancy Bennett, to develop a course entitled Multicultural Studies at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, in 1994. Flemington is a suburb in western New Jersey, a bedroom community that sits roughly equidistant between New York and Philadelphia. The school is remarkably homogenous, with 95 percent of the students identifying as white, Christian, and middle-class. Hunterdon Central, due in part to its homogeneity, had no openly ethnic, racial, or religious conflicts in the early 1990s. This fairly affluent high school sits in the shadows of two large, metropolitan cities, but was far removed from the battle over multiculturalism that was unfolding simultaneously in New York City.
The model that we adopted resembles Grant and Sleeter's (1998) multicultural education framework, as evidenced by the range of groups studied and the methods employed (e.g., social action). This model is premised on an affirmation of cultural pluralism, with the following goals: