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Multicultural education

Multicultural Education

America has long been called "The Melting Pot" due to the fact

that it is made up of a varied mix of races, cultures, and

ethnicities. As more and more immigrants come to America searching

for a better life, the population naturally becomes more diverse.

This has, in turn, spun a great debate over multiculturalism. Some of

the issues under fire are who is benefiting from the education, and

how to present the material in a way so as to offend the least amount

of people. There are many variations on these themes as will be

discussed later in this paper.

In the 1930's several educators called for programs of

cultural diversity that encouraged ethnic and minority students to

study their respective heritages. This is not a simple feat due to

the fact that there is much diversity within individual cultures. A

look at a 1990 census shows that the American population has changed

more noticeably in the last ten years than in any other time in the

twentieth century, with one out of every four Americans identifying

themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or

American Indian (Gould 198). The number of foreign born residents

also reached an all time high of twenty million, easily passing the

1980 record of fourteen million. Most people, from educators to

philosophers, agree that an important first step in successfully

joining multiple cultures is to develop an underezding of each

others background. However, the similarities stop there. One problem

is in defining the term "multiculturalism". When it is looked at

simply as meaning the existence of a culturally integrated society,

many people have no problems. However, when you go beyond that and

try to suggest a different way of arriving at that culturally

integrated society, Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what

will work. Since education is at the root of the problem, it might be

appropriate to use an example in that context. Although the debate at

Stanford University ran much deeper than I can hope to touch in this

paper, the root of the problem was as follows: In 1980, Stanford

University came up with a program - later known as the "Stanford-style

multicultural curriculum" which aimed to familiarize students with

traditions, philosophy, literature, and history of the West. The

program consisted of 15 required books by writers such as Plato,

Aristotle, Homer, Aquinas, Marx, and Freud. By 1987, a group called

the Rainbow Coalition argued the fact that the books were all written

by DWEM's or Dead White European Males. They felt that this type of

teaching denied students the knowledge of contributions by people of

color, women, and other oppressed groups. In 1987, the faculty voted

39 to 4 to change the curriculum and do away with the fifteen book

requirement and the term "Western" for the study of at least one

non-European culture and proper attention to be given to the issues of

race and gender (Gould 199). This debate was very important because

its publicity provided the grounds for the argument that America is a

pluralistic society and to study only one people would not accurately

portray what really makes up this country.

Proponents of multicultural education argue that it offers

students a balanced appreciation and critique of other cultures as

well as our own (Stotsky 64). While it is common sense that one could

not have a true underezding of a subject by only possessing

knowledge of one side of it, this brings up the fact that there would

never be enough time in our current school year to equally cover the

contributions of each individual nationality. This leaves teachers

with two options. The first would be to lengthen the school year,

which is highly unlikely because of the political aspects of the

situation. The other choice is to modify the curriculum to only

include what the instructor (or school) feels are the most important

contributions, which again leaves them open to criticism from groups

that feel they are not being equally treated. A national ezdard is

out of the question because of the fact that different parts of the

country contain certain concentrations of nationalities. An example

of this is the high concentration of Cubans in Florida or Latinos in

the west. Nonetheless, teachers are at the top of the agenda when it

comes to multiculturalism. They can do the most for children during

the early years of learning, when kids are most impressionable. By

engaging students in activities that follow the lines of their

multicultural curriculum, they can open up young minds while making

learning fun. in one first grade classroom, an inventive teacher used

the minority students to her advantage by making them her helpers as

she taught the rest of the class some simple Spanish words and

customs. This newly acquired vocabulary formed a common bond among

the children in their early years, an appropriate time for learning

respect and underezding (Pyszkowski 154).

Another exciting idea is to put children in the setting of the

culture they are learning about. By surrounding children in the ideas

and customs of other cultures, they can better underezd what it is

like to be removed from our society altogether, if only for a day.

Having kids dress up in foreign clothing, sample foods and sing songs

from abroad makes educating easier on the teacher by making it fun for

the students. A simple idea that helps teachers is to let students

speak for themselves. Ask students how they feel about each other and

why. This will help dispel stereotypes that might be created in the

home. By asking questions of each other, students can get firsthand

answers about the beliefs and customs of other cultures, along with

some insight as to why people feel the way they do, something that can

never be adequately accomplished through a textbook.

Students are not the only ones who can benefit from this type

of learning. Teachers certainly will pick up on educational aspects

from other countries. If, for inezce, a teacher has a minority

student from a different country every year, he or she can develop a

well rounded teaching style that would in turn, benefit all students.

Teachers can also keep on top of things by regularly attending

workshops and getting parents involved so they can reinforce what is

being taught in the classroom at home.

The New York State Social Studies Review and Development

Committee has come up with six guidelines that they think teachers

should emphasize in order to help break down ethnic barriers. These

steps are as follows:

First, from the very beginning, social studies should be

taught from a global perspective. We are all equal owners of the

earth, none of us are more entitled than others to share in its many

wealths or misfortunes. The uniqueness of each individual is what

adds variety to our everyday life.

Second, social studies will continue to serve nation building

purposes. By pointing out the things we share in common, it will be

easier to examine the individual things that make us different.

Third, the curriculum must strive to be informed by the most

up to date scholarship. The administrators must know that in the

past, we have learned from our mistakes, and we will continue to do so

in the future. By keeping an open mind, we will take in new knowledge

and different viewpoints as they are brought up.

Fourth, students need to see themselves as active makers and

changers of culture and society. If given the skills to judge people

and their thoughts fairly, and the knowledge that they can make a

difference, students will take better control of life in the future.

Fifth, the program should be committed to the honoring and

continuing examination of democratic values as an essential basis for

social organization and nation building. Although the democratic

system is far from perfect, it has proven in the past that it can be

effective if we continue to put effort into maintaining it while

leaving it open for change.

Sixth, social studies should be taught not solely as

information, but rather through the critical examination of ideas and

events rooted in time and place and responding to social interests.

The subject needs to be taught with excitement that sparks kids

interest and motivates them to want to take place in the shaping of

the future of our country (NYSSSRADC 145-47).

In order to give a well rounded multicultural discussion, as

James Banks explains, teachers need to let students know how knowledge

reflects the social, political, and economic context in which it was

created. Knowledge explained by powerful groups in society differs

greatly from that of its less powerful counterparts (Banks 11). For

example, it should be pointed out how early Americans are most often

called "pioneers" or "settlers" in social studies texts, while

foreigners are called "immigrants". They should realize that to Native

Americans, pioneers were actually the immigrants, but since the

"pioneers" later went on to write the textbooks, it is not usually

described that way. By simply looking at the term "western culture"

it is obvious that this is a viewpoint of people from a certain area.

If students are aware that to Alaskans, the west was actually the

south, they can realize the bearings of how the elite in society

determine what is learned. By not falling victim to these same

misconceptions, students can better make unprejudiced decisions about

those around them. Another important aspect students need to realize

is that knowledge alone isn't enough to shape a society. The members

themselves have to be willing to put forth the time and effort and

show an interest in shaping their society in order for it to benefit

all people.

While generally opposed to the idea, Francis Ryan points out

that "Multicultural education programs indeed may be helpful for all

students in developing perspective-taking skills and an appreciation

for how ethnic and minority traditions have evolved and changed as

each came into contact with other groups" (Ryan 137). It would

certainly give people a sense of ethnic pride to know how their

forefathers contributed to the building of the American society that

we live in today. It is also a great feeling to know that

we can change what we feel is wrong to build a better system for our

children. Minorities would benefit from learning the evolution of

their culture and realizing that the ups and downs along the way do

not necessarily mean that their particular lifestyle is in danger of


Some opponents feel that the idea of multiculturalism will,

instead of uniting cultures, actually divide them. They feel that

Americans should try and think of themselves as a whole rather than

people from different places all living together. They go even

further to say that it actually goes against our democratic tradition,

the cornerstone of American society (Stotsky 64).

In Paul Gannon's article Balancing Multicultural and Civic

Education will Take More Than Social Stew, he brings up an interesting

point that "Education in the origins, evolution, advances and defeats

of democracy must, by its nature, be heavily Western and also demand

great attention to political history (Gannon 8). Since both modern

democracy and its alternatives are derived mostly from European past,

and since most of the participants were white males who are now dead,

the choices are certainly limited. If we try to avoid these truths or

sidestep them in any way, we cannot honestly say we are giving an

accurate description of our history.

Robert Hassinger agrees with Gannon and adds that we cannot

ignore the contributions of DWEM's for the simple fact that they are

just that. He thinks that we should study such things as the rise of

capitalism or ongoing nationalism in other countries, but should not

be swayed in our critical thinking by the fact that some people will

not feel equally treated or even disrespected (Hassinger 11). There

certainly must be reasons why many influential people in our history

have been DWEM's, and we should explore these reasons without using

race and sex alone as reasons for excluding them from our curriculum.

When conflicts arise with the way we do things, we should explore why

rather than compromise in order to protect a certain groups feelings.

Francis Ryan warns that trying to push the subject of

multiculturalism too far would actually be a hindrance if it

interferes with a students participation in other groups, or worse

yet, holds the child back from expressing his or her own

individuality. He gives a first-hand example of one of his

African-American students who was afraid to publicly admit his dislike

for rap music because he felt ethnically obligated as part of his

black heritage (Ryan 137). While a teacher can be a great help in

providing information about other cultures, by the same note, that

information can be just as harmful if it is incomplete. In order for

students to be in control of their own identity, they must have some

idea of how others look at these same qualities. Children must be

taught to resolve inner-conflicts about their identity, so that

these features that make us unique will be brought out in the open

where they can be enjoyed by all instead of being hidden in fear of

facing rejection from their peers. Teachers need to spend an equal

amount of time developing each students individuality so they don't

end up feeling obligated to their racial group more than they feel

necessary to express the diversity that makes America unique.

As Harlan Cleveland points out, many countries still feel that

the predominant race must be the one in power. For inezce, try to

imagine a Turkish leader in Germany, or anyone but a Japanese in

control of Japan (Cleveland 26). Only in America is there such a

diverse array of people in power from county officials all the way up

to the make up of people in our Supreme Court. However, although we

have made many advances culturally that other countries haven't, we

still have yet to see an African-American, Latino, or for that matter,

a woman as head of our country. With increasing awareness of other

cultures though, these once unheard of suggestions are making their

way even closer to reality.

Another way to look at the issue is that most non-Western

cultures have few achievements equal to Western culture either in the

past or present (Duignan 492). The modern achievements that put

America ahead of other countries are unique to America because they

were developed here. Many third-world countries still practice things

that we have evolved from many years ago, such as slavery, wife

beatings, and planned marriages. We are also given many freedoms that

are unheard of in other countries. Homosexuality is punished severely

in other lands, while we have grown to realize that it is part of the

genetic makeup of many people and they cannot control it.

Most immigrants come to America for a better way of life,

willing to leave behind the uncivilized values of their mother

countries. Instead of trying to move the country that they came from

into America, immigrants need to be willing to accept the fact that

America is shared by all who live here, and it is impossible to give

every citizen an equal amount of attention. If we are not willing to

forget some parts of our heritage in favor of a set of well rounded

values, then a fully integrated America will never be possible.

There certainly is no easy answer to the problem of

multicultural education. Proponents will continue to argue the

benefits that unfortunately seem to be too far out of reach for our

imperfect society. The hard truth is that it is impossible for our

public school system to fairly cater to the hundreds of nationalities

that already exist, let alone the hundreds more that are projected to

arrive during the next century. In order for us to live together

in the same society, we must sometimes be willing to overlook parts of

our diezt past in exchange for a new hope in the future. Our only

chance is to continue to debate the topic in order to hope for a

"middle of the road" compromise. One particularly interesting

solution is that we could study the basics of how America came about

in the most non-biased way possible, not concentrating on the race and

sex of our forefathers as much as what they made happen, at least

during the elementary and high school years. This would leave the

study of individual nationalities, which are not themselves

major contributing factors, for people to do at home or further down

the line in their education, where they can focus on tradition and

beliefs to any extent they want without fear of anyone feeling


In conclusion, in order for us to function as a whole, we need

to start thinking of America in terms of a whole. With just a basic

underezding of other cultures, and most importantly, the tools and

background to think critically and make our own decisions not based on

color, sex, religion, or national origin, but on information that we

were able to accurately attain through the critical thinking skills we

were taught in school, we would be better equipped to work at

achieving harmony in a varied racial country.



Banks, James A. "Multicultural Literacy and Curriculum Reform." The

Education Digest 13 Dec. 1991: 10-13.

Cleveland, Harlan. "The Limits To Cultural Diversity." The Futurist

March -April 1995 : 23-6.

Duignan, Peter. "The Dangers of Multiculturalism." Vital Speeches of

the Day 22 Mar. 1995 : 492-493.

Gagnon, Paul. "Balancing Multicultural and Civic Education Will Take

More Than "Social Stew"." The Education Digest Dec. 1991 : 7-9.

Gould, Ketayun H. "The Misconstruing of Multiculturalism : The

Stanford Debate and Social Work" Social Work Mar. 1995 : 198-204.

Hassinger, Robert. "True Multiculturalism." Commonweal 10 April 1992 :


New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee

Multicultural Education Benefits All Students." Education in

America - Opposing Viewpoints. CA : Greenhaven, 1992. 144-150.

Pyszkowski, Irene S. "Multiculturalism - Education For The Nineties;

An Overview." Education Vol. 114 No. 1 : 151-157.

Ryan, Francis J. "The Perils of Multiculturalism : Schooling for the

Group."Educational Horizons 7 Spring 1993 : 134-8.

Stotsky, Sandra. "Acedemic vs. Ideological Education in the

Classroom." The Education Digest Mar. 1992 : 64-6.

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