Multiculturalism in Education

**This was written for a college class I took in the Fall 2020 semester.**

American classrooms are more diverse than they ever have been and like many institutions in America, the changes have not come without controversy. Some of the nationalist rhetoric we have heard in our political discourse over the past four years (and before) has bled into conversations over our education system. The pushback against multiculturalism in the classroom and the curriculum changes that come with it have been fierce, with President Trump going so far as to lambaste The New York Times’ 1609 Project that attempted to reframe America’s history in a more factual context rather that emphasized the role of people of color rather than the sanitized version of American history that has pervaded for the majority of the country’s history. While multiculturalism can be beneficial to the whole of a society; in the modern world it is inevitable. Diversity and multiculturalism should not be feared or resisted, it should be embraced and America’s education system as well as its people will be required to adapt to it in order to thrive. 

To begin talking about multiculturalism in education we must discuss the intentions of education. This is a conversation that, in recent years, many Americans have been either reluctant to speak on, or when it is discussed it typically becomes mired in political dogma or American exceptionalism. These disagreements make perfect sense in the context of the broader American society. The institutions of a society will always reflect the values and ideologies of the dominant force within that society. Therefore, America’s pattern of exceptionalism conflicts with the ways the world is quickly changing. These are not new debates or conversations, rather, they are ones that have been changing and evolving throughout the course of the nation. 

In 1934 John Dewey, an American philosopher and education reformer, stated, “Any education is, in its forms and methods, an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.” He argued that education is a “social and interactive process, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place.” This sentiment, largely meant to be an ethical design for a fluid and ever-changing schooling paradigm, has been hacked by some ideologues who would have American schools become a tool for forceful assimilation. Modern curriculums that have changed their history curriculums to include more narratives of minority groups and women while acknowledging some of the unethical practices in America’s past have come under fire by those would-be populists that think that these changes are “Anti-American.” These voices that speak of education in puritanical terms prevent us from seeing its true purpose.

In finding an ethical and sustainable definition for the intentions of our education system, I would like to take an idea from Arthur Foshay, the former president of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. He states, “The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it means to be a human being.” He also criticized the idea that schools should exist to prepare students for the workforce or simply to contribute to the economy or promote any sort of political doctrine. In this I agree with him, and believe that our schools should focus on providing our students with the ability to not only live in our current society and the broader world, but also give them the tools to influence that society in a positive and constructive manner. Working with this definition, multiculturalism becomes an integral part of the future of our education system. 

The demographics of the American classroom are changing and it doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. The estimated number of foreigners in the US quadrupled from 9.6 million to 41.3 million from 1970 to 2013. (Alismail 1) Given the refugee crises going on in the Middle East and Central/Southern America, America’s demographics will be come much more ethnically and nationally diverse. While some, such as political commentator Patrick Buchanan see multiculturalism as “a cancer eating away at the fabric of American society,” American students and the American populous have much to gain from this increasing diversity. However, American educators must be prepared for the changes necessary to properly teach a multicultural classroom. 

One important hurdle that educators face in the integration of multicultural students in their classroom is tailoring the curriculum and presentation of material to reflect those students. While most Americans think of the country as being a “melting pot,” conjuring up images and sounds from School House Rock and the wholesome teachings of American education in decades past, we must recognize that this ideal has rarely, if ever, been met for many sects of our society. Those images of cultures coming together and creating something new has all too often turned into an assimilation process for immigrants who arrive to America, forcing them to conform with pre-established ways of living without recognizing their cultural traditions.

Forcing assimilation upon people with a different culture and different norms not only serves to destroy the identity of an entire group of people simply based on where they move to, but it also sets a precedent that a modern American definition of culture is the only correct one. I doubt that an American who moved to another nation would be ok with the premise that their host country’s way of living is the only way of living and that they should check their American identity in at the door. For many people, their cultural backgrounds and history are very important to them, therefore it is morally wrong to force them to assimilate under some misguided premise of “national unity.” 

Unfortunately, our country’s education system often perpetuates and enforces that same flawed and morally backward precedent. Notions like Donald Trump’s attack on the 1609 Project serve to undermine the ability for America’s teachers to teach in a way that all their students can relate and empathize with. In a 1999 study referenced in the article “Multicultural Education: Teacher’s Perceptions and Preparation” by Halah Ahmed Alismail, researchers found that 90% of preservice teachers are middle-class Caucasians, and that a significant number of them display a type of unconscious racism towards certain ethnic groups and nationalities. These unconscious biases not only serve to inhibit minority and ethnically diverse students in their classroom, but it also sets these students up for a life in which they will always be seen as “foreign” or “other.”  

This paradigm can too be seen in our media, and has been for decades. Tara J. Yosso speaks on this in her article, “Critical Race Media Literacy for These Urgent Times.” She brings up the formula used by films such as Blackboard Jungle and others in the “urban high school” genre of film, wherein a white educator manages to “turn around” a group of Latina/o or Black youth to acclimate them more towards the American vision of a “good citizen.” She goes on to state, “This formula amplifies a distorted and incomplete view with a patronizing narrative characterizing Black and Latina/o high school students as delinquents dependent on the benevolence of a (usually) White teacher.” It is a recurrence of the “White Savior” myth that has persisted in the Western ideology since the days of colonialism. While we may think of these instances of being restricted to the realm of media and film; the reality is that media, especially in the modern era, serves as a form of pedagogy in itself, but in a way that affects not just the students, but also the teacher. These patterns reflected in film and fictitious narratives are indicative of the realities of the American classroom, and these must change to meet the sociological and philosophical demands of a multicultural world. 

The question that some have in regards to shifting the American education system to a more multicultural approach is “What do we stand to gain from it and what do we stand to lose from it?” I admit that in introducing a more diverse curriculum and environment certain things will change and arguably be “lost,” but much of what will be lost is mired in antiquity and exceptionalism and serve no use for the future of America and the modern world, meanwhile what we stand to gain is a more educated society that will be more prepared to mesh with the diversity that will inevitably come. 

Working under the definition given above for the intentions of education, having teachers and students that are more prepared for coexisting in a multicultural society will help them achieve the goals of being able to affect society in a positive and constructive manner. Students that work in an environment where they feel represented tend to be more engaged with the work that they are doing, therefore as educators it is our responsibility to supply an environment that fosters that. We are doing a disservice to minority or foreign students when we do not include their culture in the curriculum. Evidence has shown that representation is important to the psychological growth and wellbeing of a child and an environment that constantly reinforces that the child is an “other” will never be able to teach them effectively. 

At the same time a multicultural classroom not only helps to serve minority groups and ethnically diverse students, it also serves white American students by instilling in them a respect and tolerance for diverse peoples and groups. This will allow them to not only feel more connected to their peers in a more meaningful way, it will also help to remedy some of the de-facto segregation that commonly exists in American schools. At the same time it will also prepare students to have the interpersonal skills to work within an ever more diverse workforce and collaborate in a more meaningful way. However, the most important thing that white Americans stand to gain from embracing a more diverse classroom is learning how to respect one another’s place within society. 

In 2020 we are seeing what is possibly the most polarized American society has been in decades, perhaps even centuries. This occurs along political lines as well as racial and ethnic lines. With an increase in diversity and a decrease in the tolerance for foreign members of our country, chaos and anger are all but inevitable. In 2016 the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report called The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on our Nation’s Schools. The report surveyed 2,000 teachers, the vast majority of which said that they “felt profoundly troubled by the racial rhetoric of the presidential candidate and the almost immediate impact on their students.” Over two-thirds of the teachers reported “their students held visceral fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.” Several teachers also said that they saw some students feeling emboldened to engage in hate speech or hostility toward peers they considered to be immigrants, Muslim, Mexican or Black. It is important to note that these chaotic and angry sentiments towards minority groups, while reaching a boiling point in the last several years, have been simmering for decades due to America’s inability to embrace an ethnically diverse populous. 

The coming crises of civil unrest and quite possibly even civil war can be remedied in significant degree by changing the pedagogy of the American classroom to be more multicultural. As people we should always strive to leave this world a little bit better than when we found it. This is a noble sentiment and one that perhaps people in the modern age have lost touch with somewhat. The nationalist movement in America is often rooted in antiquity and frameworks of thinking that do not translate to a multicultural world. While many will try to fight tooth and nail against a multicultural world, it is inevitably where we are headed. By changing pedagogy to prepare students for that world, we serve not just ourselves but all future generations to not only be more tolerant of other peoples, but to have respect for other cultures and their way of living. America is not an island unto itself and no one in this world can stand alone. As small, warring tribes, the American experiment will fail. 

With multicultural education we seek not to destroy the American ideology, but to let it change as it always has and blossom into a new, hopefully more enlightened state. Schools around the country now have the task of rising to the occasion and I hope they succeed, not just for myself, not just for foreign students, not just white students, but for every single student that will grow up to become a fully participating citizen in our American society.