Evaluate the Multicultural Programs in Schools

by Marvin Wingfield
Director of Education & Outreach
ADC Times (August-September 1998)
The decentralized school systems across the United States vary greatly in how seriously and systematically they have adapted to the new ethnic and cultural diversity of American society. Some changes are mere window-dressing implemented primarily to avoid lawsuits for discrimination. Other systems conscientiously develop multicultural programs aimed at achieving educational excellence for all students.
This article will provide basic perspectives for evaluating local multicultural programs. it draws upon the work of leading educators James Banks and Sonia Nieto, who have themselves consciously made a point of including Arab-American perspectives in their work.
Stages of Multicultural Infusion of the Curriculum
1. Recognizing Heroes & Holidays
An initial step in multicultural education is often to give official recognition to ethnically diverse “heroes and holidays” in the curriculum, textbooks, and school programs. Thus, Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as John F. Kennedy, Frederick Douglas as well as Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Nader as well as Cesar Chavez, Ramadan as well as Christmas and Hanukkah, are “celebrated” and honored. Minority images and symbols are simply added to the basic curriculum and nothing else is changed.
Sometimes this is regarded as tokenism. Black history can become something to be taught only in February and women’s history only in March. But such recognition conveys powerful symbolic messages about the legitimacy and importance of cultural identities. When one school announced over the public address system, “today begins the holy month of Ramadan,” an Arab American girl came home thrilled and proud that her tradition was officially recognized. However, when schools schedule student testing on Muslim or Christian Orthodox holidays, an opposite message is sent. All too many school systems have not reached the point of adequately including Arabs and Arab Americans in their multicultural programs.
2. Inclusion & Restructuring
A more adequate approach is to consciously include ethnic and cultural diversity into the curriculum in a systematic way. This is when minority voices are given prominence alongside more mainstream perspectives. When minority students see themselves and the culture and experience of their families and community reflected in the curriculum, education becomes more alive, vibrant and meaningful.
An inclusive program would discuss Arab Americans in classes on American history, immigration and ethnicity. Courses on world literature, music, dance and art would include Arab contributions to these fields. Anti-Arab discrimination would be discussed in classes on American democracy, government and racism. Current events discussion of Middle East crises would highlight Arab-American, Arab and Muslim perspectives, as well as mainstream media and official views.
A more fundamental restructuring would end the Eurocentric approach to world history, which exaggerates the importance of Europe and North America, downplays the centrality of the Arab and Muslim world in the medieval era, and fails to project the development of world civilization as an integrated whole.
3. Beyond Tolerance
At the heart of multicultural education is the appeal for educators, students, parents and communities of all ethnicities to move from mere “tolerance” – often grudgingly given – to genuine respect and solidarity with one another. This means moving beyond superficial claims that “our differences make us stronger and richer” to facing up to the real conflicts and hostilities among us. It is only at this point that meaningful education about social justice can take place -in the midst of actual confrontation with uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Facing up to the “dangerous” topics like racism and ethnic hostility is difficult, but necessary.
Here questions might arise regarding anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attitudes of students or teachers, bias in textbooks, or school avoidance of “controversial” issues out of fear of criticism by community groups. If there are interethnic tensions, the school administration cannot be allowed to minimize prejudice as a manifestation that “kids will be kids.”
When diverse communities begin to understand one another and to appreciate the unique history and culture of each, they also become free to act together to challenge injustices. The Us and the Them become a We.
Multicultural education reaches its true goal, not in a nervous attempt to avoid giving offense, but when students, faculty, and parents of all ethnicities together find the will and develop the skills to bring about the changes that in small and specific ways help to fulfill the ever-incomplete promises of American democracy.
For copies of articles outlining these issues in more detail, contact the author by phone at (202) 244-2990 or via e-mail at marvinw@adc.org

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