Multiculturalism is an effort at incorporating into the educational environment a greater understanding of and appreciation for the different heritages and cultures present in our society. Throughout much of our history, text and history books were written by Caucasian males. The contents of those books reflected that relatively narrow perspective. Historical events were interpreted through largely Anglo-Saxon experiences and neglected the experiences and perspectives of other ethnicities. Similarly, in academic fields like literature, English and mathematics, curriculum traditionally reflected the narrow perspectives of white European ancestry. The concept of multiculturalism was a product of that narrow perspective that failed to account for the ethnic and cultural diversity present in the United States. By incorporating a more ethnically and culturally diverse curriculum into schools, a more equitable process can theoretically be established.
Pluralism has its origins in a more political context. The United States has maintained a two-party system for much of the last century. The Republican and Democratic Parties represented the vast majority of Americans, and the democratic process has been characterized by majority rule, with respect for the rights of the minority. With the fragmentation of a two-party system, additional political movements and parties emerge to challenge that historical framework. Rather than simple majority rule by one of two parties, pluralistic systems emerge in which the party with the most votes, irrespective of whether it enjoys a majority, wins the right to govern.
Translated to the classroom, the concept of pluralism begins to merge with that of multiculturalism. Students are taught that each ethnicity or socioeconomic class should be treated equally and without prejudice. Teachers are taught to be more receptive to alternative explanations and interpretations of history and other social sciences, and that mathematical concepts can be taught in a manner more sensitive to the unique cultural backgrounds present in their classrooms.
Whether multiculturalism and pluralism is a positive development is a matter of opinion. The issue has divided along ideological lines, with liberals supporting these concepts and conservatives opposing them as undermining the political consensus that once existed that emphasized what is often referred to today as “American exceptionalism,” in effect, the notion that the United States is a special country by virtue of its democratic history, tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance, and the role it has played in world affairs. Liberals counter that argument by pointing out the history of racism in the United States and the disadvantaged position of ethnic minorities by virtue of the narrow Anglo-Saxon perspective dominant in textbooks for much of our history. One thing is absolutely certain: the United States was founded as a refuge from tyranny and is composed of numerous ethnicities and religions. The academic system should reflect the cultural diversity that is an integral part of the nation’s character. At the same time, however, respect for the ideals upon which the country was founded should remain a core part of the curriculum in social studies classes. Those ideals, no matter how flawed in their execution, remain a model that other nations strive to follow.
Pluralism or tolerance is the idea that we maintain whatever social identities we came into this country with without abandoning them and fully assimilating. For example, some people came here who were Protestants, some who were Catholicis, other Buddhists, Hindu, Muslim. Should we expect these people to abandon their religions? And what would they abandon it for? There is no national religion in America. That is why people came here in the first place to obtain the LIBERTY to practice their respective religions. This does not apply just to religion, but also to ethnicity.
As for multiculturalism. This is a perspective that we must not only tolerate the existence of other social identities, but that we should also know about them and appreciate how they are different from what ever our own identities may be. This is the whole premise behind events like multicultural fairs where you get the opportunity to sample other foods, like indian curries or middle eastern kabobs. This is also the premise behind multicultural parades where different groups show off elements of their culture (dress, dance, etc.). I think these are good events because they do increase our knowledge of other cultures which helps to maintain pluralism and intergroup harmony by making other groups seem less mysterious and strange.