Multicultural education after September 11
Learning to go beyond 'us' and 'them'
by Shauna Brown and Raymond Gunn
Since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, Americans have been compelled to reflect on democracy and what it means to be American.
In the media, calls for unity abound, and dissenting opinions often get labeled “unpatriotic” and “dangerous.”
To some, the world and the country seem easily divided into “us” and “them.”
Americans whose families came to this country in past generations quickly forget our own immigrant roots and the eras when, out of fear, another group claiming to be patriotic referred to “us” as “them.”
This practice has a long history in the United States.
“Throughout our history we have turned against immigrants, or we’ve oppressed immigrants. In the 1840s it’s the Irish, then the Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, it keeps going,” explains Kyle Farley, founder of Poor Richard’s Walking Tours, run by a group of graduate students in American history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Since 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been targeted and suspected of posing a “threat” to our American way of life.
Farley notes the irony. “If you say that America is great because we had immigration in the past, but now it’s a problem, that doesn’t make sense. You can’t understand why America is so successful without understanding immigration and diversity.”
With adversity gripping our nation, there seem to be too few attempts at this type of understanding.
What does this mean for public education?
Public schools after 9/11
Public schools, as institutions that purport to express and teach the values that the country holds dear, have a responsibility to make room for more complicated ways of understanding ourselves and the world.
“At other moments of national crisis, teachers, and education more broadly, have moved to the center of the debate about what to teach, from whose perspective, and if and how to tolerate (or encourage) dissent,” explains Nadine Dolby, a scholar at Northern Illinois University, and guest editor for a special September 11 issue of the Teachers College Record.
Dolby argues that schools should be spaces where dialogue and multiple perspectives are encouraged rather than dismissed.
“What is needed now is even more vigorous debate about the central questions that have been opened up in recent months,” Dolby writes.
“Educators’ roles must be to contribute to the public life of a democracy, and to raise penetrating, and often unpopular, questions in our classrooms and other forums.”
Since multicultural education encourages educators to do that kind of questioning, it was the topic of some debate in national newspapers in the weeks following September 11.
Multiculturalism under attack
While many educators said that we cannot begin to understand the stunning events of September 11 and their aftermath without a multicultural perspective, critics of multiculturalism promptly put forward the idea that too many “anti-American” viewpoints had found their way into the curriculum already.
High profile conservative spokespeople such as Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, joined in a series of explicit attacks on multiculturalism.
Cheney and others argued that schools need to spend more time learning about the virtues of American culture rather than try to understand why many in the world hate America. In their view, pursuing this question wrongly implies that the tragedy is our fault.
Critics also challenged multiculturalism for its emphasis on tolerance. The nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, recently came under attack for lesson plans posted on a September 11 website that warn against intolerance toward Muslims and against singling out a group for blame. Conservative columnist George Will charged that the website showed a “politically correct obsession with ‘diversity’ and America’s sins.”
But to advocates of multiculturalism, it would be a mistake to turn away from understanding and acknowledging the many cultures and perspectives that shape and impact the world as well as the power dynamics embedded within that diversity. This does not mean abandoning all moral standards; it means being open to complexities and critical perspectives.
Traditionally, curriculum in the United States has presented an Anglo-American Christian perspective as simple and universal.
But the history of Philadelphia alone reveals that the American perspective has never been simple or universal. Kyle Farley notes that Philadelphia founder William Penn’s vision of religious diversity provided a place where the British, Swedish, Dutch, French, and German people could practice their religions without persecution.
It is here that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1787. By this time, Philadelphia had already established itself as one of the largest and most diverse cities in the New World.
Yet, few Philadelphia students learn that this city’s diversity was intentional and desired from the beginning.
With a multicultural curriculum, students and teachers have a new model of American identity that goes beyond the simplistic “us” versus “them” and constructs a heterogeneous “we.”
It considers the complexity of our national heritage and recognizes our interdependence both nationally and globally, while respecting and discussing our differences.
It recognizes and appreciates the fact that people of all races, classes, ethnicities, languages, genders, religions, and sexual identities made and continue to make meaningful and significant contributions to the nation and world as we know them.
The challenge for educators is to recognize the power of multiple perspectives to enhance the curriculum and to help develop critical thought about our world.
A group called Educators for Social Responsibility, with a chapter in New York City, models this approach as it uses its website (www.esrmetro.org) to offer resources for teaching about the September 11 tragedy and other current political issues.
Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org/sept11) and Teaching for Change (www.teachingforchange.org) are two other organizations that have web sites and resources with similar approaches. Rethinking Schools has prepared a special report, War, Terrorism and America’s Classrooms, in which the editors explain why “the only way we can make sense of this moment in history is through a multicultural lens.”
Dolby asserts that September 11, 2001 is “a teachable moment not only for exploring how and why the attacks happened, but also for examining our national responses to those attacks and what they reveal about the challenges of a post-September 11 world.”
Multicultural education offers a strategy for taking advantage of those teachable moments, equipping students with tools appropriate for their world, and for helping students to understand how and why they can make a difference.