A group that is, by its very nature, mentally defective, will also easily be viewed as incapable of supporting itself without help - a strain on the larger society. In terms of modern day American society, this could be seen as declaring that African-Americans, and other similarly impoverished and marginalized groups, are likely to remain forever within the care of the social welfare system. Believers in such ideas might easily raise the question - why bother with caring for these people at all? More to the point; however, is the question of whether there is really anything wrong with most of these individuals at all? Clearly, a large part of their "mental disabilities" derive from internal and external assumptions about what it means to be African-American, or a member of some similarly tagged minority group. A multicultural approach to the educational process helps to guarantee that all individuals are ranked according to their own merits without regard to preconceptions about the supposed abilities, or "disabilities" of their race, ethnic, linguistic, or religious group. A child whether white and English-speaking, African-American and English-speaking, or the child of Arabic-speaking Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, or a Spanish-speaking youth in an inner city, are all Americans with the same opportunities and potential strengths and weaknesses. Ability is a matter of personal skills and predilections.
What We Don't Know
There are however, various limitations to the multicultural approach, among which are the fact that certain achievements of the systems employed are more theoretical than factual in foundation. While the tracking of minority youths into programs for the disabled and mentally deficient are verifiable truths, certain other claims made by proponents of multicultural education cannot so easily be substantiated. As pointed out by Sleeter, any teaching method is limited by the assumptions made by those designing the course of instruction. What is emphasized in a textbook represents the choices made by the dominant group - "By claiming to tell a multicultural story, the Framework masks the ideology of its own story." (Sleeter, 2002) Proponents of multiculturalism believe they are building a bias-free society that works toward the inclusion of all, but in teaching - history for example - educators are inevitably making choices that either ignore the contributions of one group or emphasize the ideologies of another. An America that is built on principals of democracy and consumerist capitalism will necessarily be inclined to educate its youth in ways of thinking and seeing that ignore the, say, more community-oriented outlooks of many Asian or Hispanic immigrants. (Sleeter, 2002) as such a realization reveals, it is exceedingly difficult to remove any and all bias from a curriculum. The supposed multicultural goal is in reality an attempt to use multicultural approaches to achieve the goals of one particular culture and tradition.
Furthermore, the very approaches of multiculturalism in education do not, in and of themselves, guarantee a greater ability to learn, or a greater opportunity for success in school, or in future life. A study by Lawrence found that multicultural programs too often focused on the needs of individual teacher development than on any systematic changes that might be necessary. (Lawrence, 2005) it is as if the belief were that by merely changing the perceptions of the instructor the entire outlook of a society could be transformed. Central to multicultural ideas is the belief that we are all members of varied groups, and come from different backgrounds. The larger, majority society perceives us in varied ways, and with varying degrees of prejudice. To focus on teacher training ignores the student component of the equation. Center notes that approaches to multicultural education typically focus on the expansion of curricula to the exclusion of other important considerations such as an improvement of teaching techniques. (Center, 2005) the belief appears to be that the mere elimination of prejudice and expansion of group and cultural horizons will automatically inspire students to greater levels of achievement. "An inadequate pedagogy results in disengaged or unproductive student responses to multiethnic texts." (Center, 2005) Young people are being exposed to a greater diversity of opinion but they are not being taught to analyze this wealth of opinion in a sufficiently productive fashion. The guidance that is necessary for true growth and understanding is often absent.
On another level, Platt underscores the shortcomings that arise from much of the current emphasis in multicultural programs. Rather than point out the causes of racism and religious and ethnic prejudice, contemporary textbooks tend to highlight the positive contributions of members of oppressed groups. (Platt, 2002) the essential aim of multicultural education - that of eliminating prejudice - is, in effect, being ignored in favor of a moral and confidence boosting approach. Young women and men must be able to understand how the attitudes developed that created the situation in the first place if they are to comprehend how to avoid duplicating these same conditions. Yet Platt's critique of current approaches to multicultural education is essential the same as those of others. Substantially, they revolve around the lack of provision of the necessary cognitive tools for the students concerned. Thinking about different cultures and peoples is not the same as simply reading about them. The large amounts of re-written and re-packaged material must be interpreted in a logical and coherent manner. Exposure is not the same as understanding. Indeed, encouraging students to look at the triumphs of oppressed individuals might help some young people to achieve success, but too many it could serve only as another example of how only some people can make it in an essentially hostile world.
So What? Recommendations for a Way Forward
Multiculturalism in education offers much promise. For too long, large numbers of Americans have been excluded from the most basic benefits of our society. Their fate, in fact, has not been considered ours at all, but theirs. Multicultural education helps to expand the horizons and opportunities of all Americans. Ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority groups have frequently been subjected to dangerous stereotyping that pigeonholes members of these groups in out of the way corners of society. Research has shown that African-Americans, Latinos, and others, are relegated to special education programs in far greater numbers than majority whites, and often without just cause. Multicultural curricula help to open up minorities and whites to different views of the world. Students and teachers participating in these programs begin to see things from other perspectives and to understand many of the roadblocks facing those who are different from themselves. Multiculturalism teaches us that others possess varied values and goals and that these variations in the human condition do not represent aberrant behaviors, nor are they symptomatic of mental disorder. Nevertheless, multiculturalism tends to ignore the deeper thought processes that lie behind these attitudes. While teachers and their students may become more open to other ideas, and more knowledgeable about the experiences of others, they do not necessarily look any more deeply into the underlying causes of these differences in perception and experience.
In future, researchers should begin to concentrate more on how these perceptions develop, and in what ways competing perceptions of reality shape our society and our individual lives. More work needs to be done, too, on the ways in which multicultural programs effect academic and real world achievement. Do multicultural programs actually raise student performance levels? Are individuals schooled in multicultural ideas genuinely better equipped for the working world? Are they more successful? Proponents of multiculturalism must work toward creating a linkage between their programs and the needs and demands of everyday life. Education is about preparing students for tomorrow. Knowledge is essential, but so too is the ability to reason.
Further research on multicultural education needs to include the impact of these programs on the future course of young people's lives. If need be, these programs must be re-designed to better adapt them to the conditions of contemporary life. Just because people "know" about the experiences of others, does not mean they really understand how those people view the world around them. Only by achieving such understanding can we hope to alleviate the mistakes of the past and build a better way forward.
Allen, J., & Hermann-Wilmarth, J. (2004). Cultural Construction Zones. Journal of Teacher Education, 55(3), 214+.
Block, P., Balcazar, F., & Keys, C. (2001). From Pathology to Power: Rethinking Race, Poverty and Disability. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 12(1), 18.
Bruch, P.L., & Higbee, J.L. (2002). Reflections on Multiculturalism in Developmental Education. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 33(1), 77+.
Center, C. (2005). "Desperately Looking for Meaning": Reading Multiethnic Texts. MELUS, 30(2), 225+.
Clark, C.T. (2003). Examining the Role of Authoritative Discourse in the Labeling and Unlabeling of a "Learning Disabled" College Learner: This Case Study Explores the Role of Authoritative Discourse in the "Learning Disabled" Labeling of a Student Enrolled in a Literacy Course for Preservice Teachers. The "Unlabeling" Process Involved a Situated Understanding of Learning. Journal…