Giving It Meaning

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"American society is a global experiment in combining individual representatives of the world's vast array of human cultures - some of them privileged, some of them oppressed, some of them arriving hopefully and voluntarily, some of them 'imported' under duress - in self-consciously new and rapidly changing circumstances loosely guided by the political and moral ideal of democracy."
- Judith M. Green 


What is Multicultural Education?

If the idea of multicultural education is to be stressed, what exactly is "multiculturalism?"

It is identified by one group as education stressing "the promotion of understanding, respect, and acceptance of cultural diversity" within the society. (British Columbia, 1998) This type of education couples with anti-racism education. Anti-racism education promotes the elimination of racism through identifying and changing institutional policies and practices as well as identifying individual attitudes and behaviors that contribute to racism.

So, how can we educate children, and ourselves to be part of a multicultural society?

Just as our founding fathers' set out to unite the diversity of Americans in the original colonies with the words, "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So must present and future Americans accept and recognize our cultural diversity. As Judith Green stated, America has always been a multicultural society. She goes on to say that American tradition has commonalities that cover masses geographically and culturally, and where education was regarded, from the very beginning, as the 

most desirable and effective mode of personal foundation and social transformation, preparing individuals to use their particular gifts and capacities at a high level of development on behalf of a preferable future for themselves, their family, their nation and human civilization in general. (Green, 1998, pg 424)

First, we must educate about cultures as part of the whole curriculum, not just part of a school event, like Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo Day or Thanksgiving. These ideas must be threaded into the curriculum, rather than treated as separate from the curriculum. The possibility of teaching cultural ideals as part of the whole curriculum fits in well with the idea of teaching subjects as they relate to each other, rather than teaching subjects as separate, unrelated entities.

Interest in "separate subjects" had sparked several alternatives. One idea, according to James Beane in Curriculum Integration: Designing the Core of Democratic Education is "organizing centers" or a thematic approach. One way to use this approach is to identify a theme and relating everything to the theme, thus providing a meaningful integration of the knowledge and experience (Beane, 1997, pg 5). Beane gives these as some examples of themes: colonial living, myths and legends, the Middle Ages, transportation. 

Consider any of these…let's use the Middle Ages.  Literature and art examples would be easy to find on this period of time. As part of a history lesson, a discussion of what led to this period, and what changes led to the rebirth (the Renaissance Period). Transportation, health, and science were all very important during this period. Math could be integrated in understanding taxation and the abuse of political position. 

How about social problems as themes? For instance: "conflict," "the environment," "living in a multicultural world," "health and disease, "and "education of the few or the masses." All of these ideas when learned in the thematic approach give the student an opportunity to connect concepts and associate them with a "whole way of life."

While many people consider education to be a collection of distinct subjects taught by experts (or at least advanced studiers) of the subject, others believe a truly educated student would come for a different type of environment. Dewey said: 

All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world. When the child lives in varied but concrete and active relationships to this common world, his studies are naturally unified. It will no longer be a problem to correlate studies. The teacher will not have to resort to all sorts of devices to weave a little arithmetic into the history lesson, and the like. Relate the school to life and all studies are of necessity correlated. (Dewey 1910/1915, pg 32 as cited in Beane, 1997, pg 13) 

This follows Piaget's idea of development where education helps children relate an unknown to their own world and allows for the recognition of similarities and construction of meaning. 

Thus, teaching subjects as an abstract event, unrelated by anything other than a calendar date is likely to be fun, creative and somewhat educational, but it will not likely create a "unifying event from which the child leaves having been changed by the experience." If we want our children to learn about other cultures, we must find a way to give that experience meaning. 

For example, if math and England's history/literature are taught as separate subjects, unrelated and unaffected by each other, students may never understand that much of the history of England revolved around numbers. Marriages (lineage, status, moral codes, royal titles, the line of rulers) were closely tied to dowry and ability to financially support a new family branch (definitely number games.) Painters, playwrights, and those who copied books before the printing press (examples of the arts, plus the copying down of history) were all funded, usually by royalty and the wealthy. Without "numbers" England's history would be much different.

The same connection of ideas must be used to educate the democratic student. Education must include an increase in creative intercultural communication in a pluralistic society. It must provide equal opportunities for educational achievement by all learners, regardless of culture, national origin, religion, or social class. Thus instead of eliminating or restricting cultural diversity within schools, education should promote and celebrate diversity, and experiences of all students in school curricula. In this way, students have more opportunity to develop respect for self, respect for others and social responsibility; and society can begin eliminating stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and other forms of racism.

Students must be taught that at the heart and soul of democracy is the idea that all men are created equal. That common experiences allow integration, not just between subject matter, but between people (and peoples). More importantly, cultural diversity should be freely integrated as a common thread throughout education, rather than as an out-of-context event. It would be best to provide students with situations where they can participate in cultural events, experience cultural differences, experience cultural traditions (in context) and learn of cultural values as they pertain to human interaction and to history; and the students will learn from these experiences. 

Secondly, multicultural education must involve:

recognition that everyone belongs to a cultural group or multiple cultural groups  
acceptance of cultural diversity and appreciation of it as a positive aspect of society  
affirmation that all cultures are equal within the society  
promotion of multicultural education for all students  
recognition that there are more similarities than differences between cultural groups  
recognition that cultural pluralism is a positive aspect of society  
affirmation and encouragement of self-esteem and pride in history, heritage, and culture by providing opportunities to share in the cultural heritage of others  
promotion of citizenship  
promotion of racial harmony  
promotion of understanding (British Columbia,1998)

Thirdly, we must assess our progress

Barry McLaughlin and Beverly McLeod, in their paper, "Educating All Our Students: Improving Education for Children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds" began with a discussion of diversity. They said that there is more diversity (linguistically and culturally) among American students today than any time since the early 20th century. Approximately one-third of the children in classes are from ethnically or racially minority groups, and about 20 percent are from families where English is not the primary language spoken at home. With more than 100 languages spoken in America, isn't it important to recognize this cultural pluralism?

I believe it is. That is why I think that multiculturalism must be taught, including respect for self and others.  I also think that progress should be assessed.

Within the classroom, lessons of importance are tested by written tests, projects, speeches, etc. If the lesson is important, the teacher always assesses the amount of knowledge gleamed from the class or seminar.  If something is of little importance, it is rarely assessed.  Why then, if multiculturalism in our society is such a hot issue, is it rarely assessed? To learn more about this, follow the link: Assessment.  Or, see some descriptions of authentic assessment in real lessons on the Lessons page.

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Last updated: December 06, 2000.