Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Multiculturalism - Whatever that is . . .

At the end of last week's class, the professor said, “We'll be reading about multiculturalism, whatever that means...” which is a true assessment of my experience of this model of curriculum theorizing. As an undergraduate, I had a class in Multiculturalism, which focused on a representational model – make sure all students are represented in the textbooks, choose novels with diverse characters, and allow students to bring their home cultures in to the classroom. However, as the readings for this week show – there is a lot more to it than just an add-on in the curriculum, it is a way of thinking about the world.

One of the more recent theories about race and culture is critical race theory (CRT). Ladson-Billings' (2009) article states that there are three themes to CRT: although laws guide actions, often other factors influence decisions just as much; politics and the law are imperfect; politics and the law serve the interests of those in power; and the law is inherently contradictory as it tries to serve the individual and the society. It is clear that laws, throughout history, have enforced the power for those with power. For example, the Greek definition of citizenship narrowed the definition to male adults of citizens. Immigrants could not be citizens, and by that token, nor could their children. As the US was formed, citizenship was defined by landownership, family holdings, and gender. It denied voting rights to women and non-whites. Thomas Jefferson (1787) feared massive immigrations and stated, “They [emigrants] will infuse into it [government] their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 8). It seems this fear has become an integral part of American government, as only laws have forced voting rights for non-male/white people and tried to negate the importance of property. However, like Ladson-Billings & Tates (1995) original article on CRT in Education stated, race continues to be a significant factor in inequality in the US and societal relationships continue to be based on property rights – and both shape how schooling and education happens. Most of school funding still comes from property taxes – which is inherently unequal. It seems a no-brainer to understand that well-funded schools tend to have more materials, higher paid teachers (which tend to be better and are retained longer), and higher achieving students. Understanding the effects of race means looking systemically at not just schools, but neighborhoods and politics – which is the point of CRT.

Geneva Gay (2004) returns to the school to look at the importance of multicultural education. She supports curriculum development that not only equitably represents the diversity of American society but is also presented in a relevant manner to students – not just as an add-on or token, but as an integral part of teaching and learning. I find that my student teachers are very good at representing diverse voices, but struggle much more with making content relevant. Most come from solidly middle-class white backgrounds and they succeeded with traditional methods of teaching. Pushing them to think beyond their own experiences is tough, and they tend to default to the discourse of “it is the kid's responsibility to be motivated and ready to learn” or to the discourse of dumbing-down the content. As I have mentioned before, there are not a lot of positive models of culturally relevant pedagogy around here.

I agree that school climate is a major factor in a child's successful journey through the system. When students are bullied and harassed, for whatever reason (race, sex, religion, sexual orientation) the physical and mental energy that should go to learning is rallied to protect themselves. Our school system, with the implicit assumptions that go with the factory model of teaching, doesn't recognize or give time and space to the affective component of learning. Bullying is usually dealt with using a zero-tolerance punishment model, rather than looking at the root causes. Like any other band-aid on a deep wound, it will still bleed through.


Gay, G. (2004). The importance of multicultural education. Educational Leadership, 61(4), 30-35.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). Race still matters: Critical race theory in education. In Apple, M.W., Au, W. & Gandin, L.A. (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of critical education. New York: Routledge.

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