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18.1.1: Introduction to Multicultural Education

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    Why Multicultural Education?

    What is multicultural education? It is likely a term you have heard before, and perhaps something that you have never spent much time thinking about. Multicultural education is the idea that the United States is made up of many different kinds of people, and the public education people receive should be reflective and inclusive of all the different backgrounds that make up our country. Additionally, multicultural education should help all students feel that they have a place in our schools and society, regardless of their race, social class, gender, sexual identity, disability, language and geographic background, or religious background. In order to help you understand this importance, we have organized these modules into groups based on these differences. By understanding the experiences and societal impacts of each of these dimensions of diversity, you should be more prepared to teach or interact with people from all backgrounds going forward. As our schools and society in the United States continue to become more diverse, multicultural education is critical to foster empathy and understanding to each other.

    While many people can agree that this is an important concept, implementation of multicultural education can be very different. In today’s educational policy landscape, multicultural education is often viewed as being separate from general education, something that can be used occasionally to enrich or complement the general academic program. For example, many schools use national events like Black History Month or Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to learn about the contributions of African-Americans, while others organize events to celebrate multiculturalism. Diversity Weeks or school assemblies designed to promote racial and ethnic diversity can be observed in districts across America. While these efforts are no doubt designed and implemented with benevolent intentions, many scholars in the field of multicultural education have suggested that current educational policies and practices address only the surface-level of multiculturalism by highlighting differences in food, dress, music, dance, and language, without addressing the underlying issues of educational values, worldview, and knowledge construction (Banks, 2004; Gollnick & Chinn, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012). As such, the conceptualization of multiculturalism shifts from a product to a process. Rather than offer simple educational products–like prescribed, close-ended lesson plans—these modules view multiculturalism as a long term investment that shifts and shapes educational experiences at all levels of policy and practice.

    The aim of these modules is to expand the understanding of multiculturalism to create a more inclusive and more holistic approach to teaching and learning. While many discussions of multiculturalism center around issues of race and ethnicity, we posit that class and socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, language, immigration, geography, and religion also play crucial roles in the development of equal and equitable educational policies and practices. Therefore, after a discussion of the sociopolitical and sociocultural contexts of education and the overarching approaches to multicultural education, this module will investigate each of the individual identifiers that contribute to a more complete view of multiculturalism.

    History of Multiculturalism

    Multiculturalism, by definition, contains–and is characterized by–the diverse histories, ideologies, and social movements that combined to create the body of educational theories and practices that exist today. Given the history of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and language in the United States, the American education system offered unequal educational experiences to students for centuries. Prior to the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, dominant social groups–for the most part white, wealthy, males– held the social, intellectual, political, and economic power to construct the knowledge, ideologies, and cultural norms that became institutionalized in American society and therefore implemented in educational settings. A wide body of scholarly research documented the systematic construction of educational curricula that validated and reinforced the dominance of European and Western values, while simultaneously degrading and devaluing the contributions of communities of color (Banks, 1993; Fine, 1987; Hines, 1964). Theoretical and empirical research confirmed that the imposition of a singular construction of knowledge based on the political, cultural, and economic ideologies of the dominant group was detrimental to the education of students whose backgrounds did not align with the dominant group (Banks, 2004). These findings, which were documented in formal research as well as in the informal experiences of countless individuals, contributed to the formation of a more unified conception of multicultural education. It is important, however, to situate modern understandings of multiculturalism within their historical contexts.

    In an effort to reflect the diverse history of multiculturalism, Fullinwider (2003) identified several “tributaries” that converged to create multicultural education. Intergroup education, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, ethnic studies programs, and feminist and gender equality movements offered some of the most influential contributions to the contemporary conception of multiculturalism. Each of these traditions challenged dominant patterns of knowledge construction in American society, and thereby influenced teaching and learning in schools across the nation.

    While some education historians challenge the idea that the intergroup education movement influenced the development of early multiculturalism (Boyle-Baise 1999), others see it as a precursor to the establishment of the ethnic studies movement that was integral to its recognition as a legitimate academic field (Banks, 2004). The intergroup education movement was a product of the larger political, social, and economic context of the era. Throughout the 1940s, the effects and consequences of the United States’ involvement in World War II radically changed the way of life for many Americans. Economically, the increased availability of wartime jobs in the North and West enticed large numbers of African Americans, Mexican Americans, rural whites, and women to migrate into urban centers to fill vacant jobs. Politically, the wartime nationalism sparked–to a degree– a more inclusive national political narrative that promoted tolerance of African Americans in order to achieve common goal of defeating Germany and Japan, though the war also sparked increased racism against Asian Americans, particularly Japanese Americans, who were subject to harassment and violence, in addition to being forced to live internment camps. The social consequences of the war, however, were more complex. With increasing diversity in many urban centers, conflict based on race, ethnicity, and gender became a common experience. In the years following the war, black and Hispanic soldiers were legally and institutionally barred from receiving their GI and other veteran benefits, which was a stark reminder of the deeply entrenched racism in American society. The unrest caused politicians and policy-makers to turn to education for solutions to social issues.

    In response to the social, political, and economic consequences of World War II, the intergroup education movement aimed to reduce racial and ethnic tension by promoting an educational ideology of tolerance. Intergroup education grew out of progressive education and was headed by predominate educational researchers such as Hilda Taba, Howard Wilson, and Lloyd Cook (Banks, 2004). In order to achieve its central goal of reducing racial tensions and promote intergroup tolerance and understanding, the intergroup education movement advocated for the establishment of intergroup relations centers, active involvement in social tolerance movements, and the creation of more inclusive educational objectives, curriculum, and pedagogy throughout educational experiences, from kindergartens through universities. These programs were implemented into practice sporadically and non-uniformly, which led to mixed results in their effectiveness in achieving their stated goals. However, the intergroup education produced a number of influential research studies and reports that offered empirical evidence of educational inequalities based on race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. These studies confirmed and helped to support landmark cases that were directly preceded the Civil Rights Movement, including Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll study. While the intergroup education movement was viewed as a departure from previous educational traditions because of its inclusiveness, it was rooted primarily in an ideology that promoted tolerance and human relations, without a specific focus on the individual histories of different minority groups or the overarching institutionalized discrimination in American society, which became a central focus of the Civil Rights Movement, revisionist history, and ethnic studies programs. It is this distinction that has led scholars to view the intergroup education movement as an educational ideology separate from multiculturalism (Boyle-Blaise; 1999).

    The scholarly literature identified the Civil Rights Movement as one of the major factors that contributed to modern multicultural education (Banks, 2004; Banks, 1993; Gay, 1983; Valverde, 1977). Clearly, the overarching goals and objectives of multicultural education reflect the struggle for freedom and equality embodied in the Civil Rights Movement. The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 marked the beginning of court-ordered educational integration in the United States. However, the oft quoted “all deliberate speed” language in the court’s decision limited the ability for federal oversight to ensure that states complied with the decision. Despite the ruling, the integration of schools continued to be a hard fought battle waged by civil rights activists, parent groups, and even students themselves. During this time, the focus was so heavily on integration of schools and the physical safety of students, there was little room for inquiry into curriculum content and pedagogical practices. However, as the Civil Rights Movement advanced, educational researchers and activists began to question the educational policies and practices of the time and began to develop the underlying foundations of multicultural education.

    After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the character of the Civil Rights Movement began to shift towards cultural pride, self-determination, and political activism (Gay, 1983). The growth of cultural consciousness among black activist groups sparked intellectual inquiry into the histories, traditions, and worldviews of cultures that had previously been excluded from the curriculum in American education, from elementary school through university. Armed with a critical consciousness, academics and practitioners conducted numerous analyses and reviews of curriculum contents and textbooks. Not only did these studies find that the contributions of minority groups and women systematically left out of the curriculum, they also identified that the vast majority of textbooks reported “ethnic distortions, stereotypes, omissions, and misinformation” (Gay, 1983, p.561). The misinformation that existed in historiographies and curriculum content served as an impetus for scholars to revisit historical narratives with a specific focus on the contributions and experiences of non-dominant groups. These counter-narratives– sometimes called revisionist histories– challenged intellectual status-quo and offered a contrasting approach to the construction of knowledge. As the field of counter-narratives and revisionist history gained ground in academia, students and professors at universities and colleges across the nation began to demand specific academic programs that centered around the experiences of minority groups in America.

    In the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, the Civil Rights Movement became increasingly fractured as various activist groups trended in different directions, though many shared similar goals and aims. Educationally, the combination of a resurgence of cultural pride and the counter-narratives of revisionist history created a sense of isolation and alienation from mainstream American culture and inspired a separatist perspective on curriculum and instruction. With the support of faculty, minority student activist groups on college and university campuses petitioned for specialized programs that addressed racial and ethnic issues. In response to the pressure from students, colleges and universities established Black Studies programs and courses throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, San Francisco State University became the first university to offer a Black Studies major. The establishment of Black Studies programs helped opened the door for other groups who had been subjected to institutionalized discrimination to organize and lobby for programs and courses specific to their experiences. By 1973, approximately 600 new ethnic studies programs had been established at colleges and universities around the United States (

    As distinct ethnic studies programs became increasingly common in educational settings, scholars and researchers began to identify commonalities between the philosophies, ideologies, and experiences addressed across the separate programs. These common ideas became a center point for the establishment of multiethnic perspectives, which is considered to be the antecedent to multiculturalism. The shift to ethnic studies to multiethnic studies was guided by the work of many scholars who are now considered to be the founders of multiculturalism, including James Banks, Christine Bennett, Geneva Gay, Donna Gollnick, and Carl Grant. While the central goals of achieving equal and equitable educational experiences for all students through critical thinking, social justice, and community activism did not change during this period, some worried that the conceptual frameworks and theoretical perspectives would become muddled and less clear due to the diverse variety of experiences of the various minority groups included under the multiethnic umbrella (Grant, 1978).

    Despite these warnings, the boundaries of multiethnic education quickly expanded to become multiculturalism with the addition of gender and disability issues. Not surprisingly, the counter-narratives of ethnic studies were mirrored by a movement in gender studies that contributed to the creation of feminist movements and a resurgence of scholarship that focused on women’s issues and larger discussions about the importance of gender in society. The inclusion of gender studies in multiculturalism allowed for the development of new frameworks for analysis. For example, concepts of intersectionality and the interlocking experiences based on race, class, gender, and other identifiers–which are common in modern multiculturalism– grew out of scholarship and research in Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies. These developments allowed for deeper investigations into the systems of discrimination and advantage in American society. However, the inclusion of gender and disability in multiculturalism was not welcomed by all as some scholars continued to challenge the inclusion of gender, disabilities, and age in multiculturalism because experiences based on those identifiers did not constitute a “pervasive worldview” and therefore did not conform with the commonly accepted definition of culture in the field of multiculturalism (Boyle-Baise, 1999). Regardless, modern conceptions of multiculturalism often include a consideration of gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and age (Gollnick & Chinn, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012).

    Current perspectives on multicultural education today continue to reflect the initial goals of improving educational equity and equality, reducing discrimination, and promoting active involvement in social justice and democratic society. The history of multiculturalism includes diverse influences and contributions that truly embody the ‘multi’ of multiculturalism.