This article explores the concept of multicultural education by first defining the opposing models and consequent issues that are relevant to this field. The article examines the arguments between advocates of two opposing views on U.S. education in relation to ethnic groups, and attempts to clarify the meanings within the arguments by questioning all any assumed definitions of culture, history, or other central ideas. The paper then examines some research paradigms and their relation to multicultural curricula, explains the research findings, and defines the objectives and procedures to develop multicultural curricula. This article also examines the social policy and legal structure that surrounds multicultural education at present.
Keywords Affirmative Action; Assimilation; Cultural Imperialism; Education Commission of the States; Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC); Melting Pot; Multiculturalism; National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE); White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
Assimilation vs. Multiculturalism
The two basic models for understanding culture within America's society and system of education are assimilation and multiculturalism. These are two contrasting interethnic ideologies that consequently shape two different types of public policy, which in turn creates two different directions in the U.S. educational system. We should understand the specific definitions and approaches of assimilation and multiculturalism for several reasons; the main reason to explore these two basic concepts is that they essentially represent the two sides of what has long been a hotly debated issue in America. Thus, by clearly defining and understanding the deeper theoretical bases of the two fundamental concepts, we can quickly come to understand what multicultural education really means, as well as what has been at stake in the U.S. system of education.
Cultural assimilation is the theory that members of an ethno-cultural group, usually immigrants (or even American minority groups), are absorbed into an established, larger community, in this case a dominant mainstream American culture. Advocates of the assimilation approach believe America has a single American culture that bonds all American citizens. Assimilation means that minority and ethnic groups should adapt to that mainstream American culture rather than America accommodating various outside cultures. As Wolsko, Park and Judd (2006) note, in education theory there is a “primary tension between advocates of assimilation and advocates of multiculturalism” (p. 278). The authors observe that assimilation advocates believe we must maintain America's “traditional melting pot ideal,” according to which diverse ethnic groups “coalesce into a nation of individuals” (Wolsko, Park & Judd, 2006, p. 278).
However, in the past several decades, this "melting pot" ideal has been increasingly called into question. In The Melting-Pot Metaphor, author Ruth Walker (2006) poses the question "Is it a good thing for newcomers to America to give up their ancestral languages, their perhaps richer traditions of extended family life, or their more interesting food to become, in effect, pretend Anglos?" (Walker, 2006, ¶ 2). Her question also points out what has historically predominated in American culture: it is largely based upon White Anglo-Saxon traditions, beliefs, literature, religion, art, music- in short, culture. Walker notes that, these days, there is a growing trend toward multiculturalism, and not assimilation, and that the traditional "melting pot" metaphor has transformed into newer metaphors such as "salad bowl" and "mosaic." These are conceptions of American culture wherein immigrant populations and ethnic groups within the U.S. are not being absorbed into a larger, Anglo-Saxon culture, but rather are themselves transforming American society and culture into a multicultural mosaic - even if the power structure of America is largely White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. This of course can cause some social and political friction.
Transitional multiculturalism is, in actuality, very close to the concept of assimilation. This form of multiculturalism maintains that ethnic and racial differences do exist, but are temporary and should be overcome in order to assimilate into a mainstream, monocultural America. Transitional multiculturalism is the most acceptable form of multiculturalism for assimilation advocates since it allows multiculturalism only upon a temporary basis. According to Brown and Ratcliff (1998), those who believe in assimilation tend to adopt what sounds like the nomenclature of multiculturalism, but this is done with the agenda of accomplishing the goals of assimilation. As the authors put it, "A transformed monoculturalist, who adopts the language of multiculturalism, comes to regard cultural traditions, language, values, and norms of minority groups as vestigial" (Brown & Ratcliff, 1998, p. 13).
Assimilation theorists believe that when ethnicity is turned into an important defining characteristic in a society, it then promotes division rather than unity. For this reason, they believe that a multicultural perspective and style of education is destructive to the fabric of American culture, and that promoting difference is divisive. Speaking for those who desire an assimilative model, Duignan (1995) says, "We do not want multiculturalism dividing us into separate groups. Let the Chicanos and other ethnic nationals study their ancestors' language and culture, but do so as a second language and after they have done American history" (Duignan, 1995, ¶ 12). This perspective denies the existence of cultural diversities that have always existed, and will continue to exist, throughout America.
To support the idea that America is not as monocultural as Duignan and others presume, authors Watson and Johnston (2006) observe that American schools "are currently housing the most culturally diverse group of students in the history of American education" (p. 17). They note that some ethnic populations have experienced phenomenal growth in the United States just in the last decade. They also cite the Social Science Data Analysis Network (2001) which finds that "the Hispanic population in the U.S. has increased by 45 percent, while the Asian community grew by 45 percent and the Black and Native American populations have each increased by 15 percent" (Watson & Johnston, 2006, p. 17). The authors observe that a more culturally diverse population of students also means teachers have an increased responsibility to deal with the unique issues and needs these diverse students require. For this reason, among others, perhaps America should be pursuing a more multicultural approach in its educational system, and should not presume that American students all live within an identical American monoculture.
A multicultural approach to American history means that historians should attempt to interpret history from a different point of view than a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant point of view - which has been the status quo in American history for American history. What would American history look like if it were written entirely from a Native American point of view, or an African American point of view, and why is this less valid than the traditional White American point of view? These questions are at the heart of a multicultural philosophy in education; such questions increase cognitive sophistication in students by breaking through the assumptions of white students via cognitive dissonance, and are good questions considering the growing diversity of the American student population. Multicultural education is a paradigm shift that may help students from diverse cultural backgrounds to better understand their relationship to American history, and their current place in America's polyculture. The approach could help empower them to create a more positive future, which inevitably means a fairer and more positive society and nation.
Brown and Ratcliff (1998) propose that the vast and diverse ethnic composition of the United States require that students are exposed to multicultural curricula. As the authors note, "these curricula need to acknowledge the multiple contexts of the myriad persons and perspectives ... they need sufficient breadth and depth to embody the language, core values and traditions of each racial and ethnic group addressed" (Brown & Ratcliff, 1998, p. 19). They also say that the role of interactions (especially among dominant and under-represented groups) in forming social institutions within society are necessary to examine if we are to provide effective, cogent, and coherent multicultural curricula.
Advocates of multicultural education define it as having three central concerns: "validating the identities of socially oppressed groups; teaching the history of exploitation and resistance to it; and providing empowering education to oppressed groups" (Sutton, 2005, p. 97). Although assimilation advocates such as Duignan have a tendency to call this "ethnic cheerleading," they should consider whether this then means the status quo has been nothing more than "White cheerleading". They need to examine their own viewpoint, which is at the heart of multicultural education. Sutton and other multicultural advocates nevertheless agree with Duignan's observation that multicultural education initially grew out of the 1960s revolution. However, rather than a "witch's brew", scholars of multicultural education concur that it grew out of the "civil rights movements in the United States, particularly efforts for the complete enfranchisement of African-Americans" (Sutton, 2005, p. 97). The above idea - that assimilation advocates have failed to examine their own viewpoint - is an important point in need of further elaboration and support since this is the central failure that causes a blindness which, of course, individuals cannot see. Reyes supports this point, and elaborates a metaphor for it when she says,
In this country, all culture and ethnicity exist within the context of white privilege. Remember the popular metaphor of looking out the window. We are so used to seeing what is outside that we don't notice how the window itself shapes our perception. Multicultural awareness means refocusing our eyes so that we see the window. Is there a windowpane? Does the glass have a crack? Is there a screen? How do those factors influence our view of what we think we see? In order to help...
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