We all used Elmer’s school glue on our cute arts and crafts projects in elementary school. It left a sticky mess on our fingers and clothes and made our projects look crooked and crinkled. The worst thing about Elmer’s school glue is it only worked with a few materials, and it would crumble apart after only a few days. Elmer’s gave your five-year-old head the illusion that you could use it on anything to create projects your parents would be proud of, but in reality, only a few things like paper or glitter would still be on your project at the end of the day. All other materials and details would slowly fall off because the Elmer’s could not hold everything together.
Multicultural education — to a certain extent — operates in the same way. Paul Gorski, founder of EdChange and associate professor at George Mason University, said multicultural education came about in the 1960s with the goal of incorporating the art, history, authors and values of different races into education. Gorski noted it was done because historically marginalized groups were treated poorly by the education system. However, he believes that multicultural education today does not provide a space for conversations on discrimination to occur or for there to be an understanding of how that discrimination manifests itself.
In the same way that Elmer’s provided a base for your project, but left many materials behind, multicultural education provides a start to these spaces but “does not lend itself to creating a truly integrated society,” Gorski said.
Multicultural education is taught in such a way that it separates the history of different cultures from what we traditionally think of as history, which is usually centered around white, male perspectives. Every so often, professors and teachers celebrate the “holidays and heroes” of different cultures, but don’t delve deeper into the actual history and contexts of the people of that culture. This practice leads to a shallow recognition of difference, Gorski said. He added that this type of approach makes difference into a spectacle, allowing educators and students to only truly understand certain parts of a culture while leaving other aspects behind.
Carmen Munson, a therapist in Ithaca, New York specializing in Myers-Briggs — a training that allows people to understand where an individual’s perceptions come from and how it affects their actions — said although there are problems with it, multicultural education does have some benefits.
“The beauty of multicultural education is that it brings different perspectives and histories forward,” Munson said. “It gives minorities a space in a classroom.”
However, on the flip side, she said that teachers trying to use tactics of multicultural education should be cautious of calling histories about white, western civilization simply history while having a specific designation for history about non-white cultures. Doing so “makes people think [the non-white] perspective is not theirs so why should they care,” she said.
In her 1990 book Comprehensive Multicultural Education, Christine Bennett — professor of social studies and multicultural education at Indiana University — wrote that focusing on cultural differences between people could create negative prejudices and stereotypes. Bennett added that it is “human nature to view those who are different as inferior.” She went on to explain that stereotyping happens because most of the time the approach to teaching multicultural education is not the right one. Like Gorski, she believes that simply introducing a different culture is not enough. Classrooms need to open themselves up to be spaces in which professors can address issues like the racism those cultures have experienced.
Eunhyun Kim, professor of English at Sookmyung Women’s University in South Korea, addressed the shortcomings of how multicultural education is taught in a 2011 article titled “Conceptions, critiques, and challenges in multicultural education: Informing teacher education reform in the U.S.” She said that by making multicultural education simply a celebration of culture, it can take “the form of adding the history and cultures of ethnic minorities to the dominant curriculum without addressing racism and critiquing school structures.”
In her article, Kim observed that one of the most concerning shortcomings of multicultural education is that it does not engage in enough critical thinking. While she noted that multicultural education does introduce different viewpoints, it does not integrate them into what Kim referred to as the “official narrative,” which is usually associated with Eurocentric male history, making it difficult to address racism, marginalization and inequality in schools.
Instead of the way it is currently done, Kim said impactful multicultural education would aid students in becoming active and aware members of a democratic society. For her, the way to do this is by putting the perspectives of marginalized groups at the core of the curriculum, instead of having them be in the periphery behind the dominant, white Eurocentric narrative.
Initiatives, such as Gorski’s EdChange, are trying to address how multicultural education does not teach students how to truly understand other people’s cultures, deal with racial, sexist or homophobic slurs or create an environment for social justice. For Gorski, these are the issues multicultural education should be addressing.
“The goal of EdChange is to move from more fluffy or surface level conversations about diversity and multiculturalism and sort of pivot people into a more serious conversation about education equity and justice,” Gorski said. “It’s getting beyond celebrating diversity and getting to more directly talk about racism and sexism and homophobia and heterosexism, among other things.”
Through his organization, Gorski hosts workshops that teach educators to notice and address biases in textbooks and pick up on racial slurs students might say. He also teaches educators to change their curriculums to improve multicultural education through five stages of learning.
The first stage is shifting away from status quo education, which is when we see material largely based on Eurocentric, male perspectives, Gorski said. He said the second stage is when teachers introduce holidays and heroes of different cultural groups. While Gorski said this stage is needed, he added it is dangerous when professors do not move past this stage, and the reality is that most do not. The danger of staying in stage two is that although it invites and recognizes diversity, it doesn’t go in depth about different cultures or address issues of racism and discrimination.
The third stage is having educators understand where their students come from and teach material in a way that can relate to the minority students in the classroom. The next stages are about understanding each other’s backgrounds, finding connections with people of different identities and moving towards an institution that does not make multiculturality a section or a celebration month, but a constant conversation. The end goal is to create an environment that promotes social change and an understanding of others’ values, cultures and perspectives.
Another way of developing the type of curriculum that promotes social understanding of marginalization, oppression and change is through the transformation approach to multicultural education. James Banks, professor of multicultural education at the University of Washington, described the transformative approach in his 2012 book Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives as a pedagogy that makes students look at the material they are learning from a perspective that is not their own. Minority students do this all the time when looking at history, literature and politics from the viewpoint of the conquerors; it’s just flipping the roles.
The transformation approach starts with the “knowledge construction process,” which is where teachers are tasked with helping students understand, investigate and determine how implicit cultural assumptions and biases can influence the ways knowledge is constructed. Then, students are encouraged to think about knowledge and view ideas from the point of view of other societal groups rather than from their own point of view. This approach depends on professors to create an environment where differences are welcomed, not stigmatized, and to teach others to be respectful and understanding of different backgrounds.
Cynthia Henderson, professor of theater for social change at Ithaca College, implements this type of pedagogy in her acting classes by offering her students the chance to “walk in the shoes of other cultures.” She does this by having her students explore characters from all different backgrounds and learn as much as they can about their situation to create an understanding of all the different people who make up the United States.
Henderson also seeks to normalize the multicultural aspect of education, framing her course in a way that makes her students learn about the U.S. from another group’s perspective. For example, she encourages her students to pick a monologue or scene they think is powerful without focusing on whether the character is a different gender, race or sexuality than the one her students identify as. This forces her students to learn and understand what it was like to be a female African-American opera singer, for example, even if they are a cisgender white male.
Henderson said the way to bring effective multicultural education to other fields, like history and politics, is to stop separating history by race.
“Instead of saying we’re going to talk about black women’s history say we’re going to talk about U.S. politics and tell the story of Shirley Chisholm: the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States,” Henderson said. Because, for Henderson, when we make that a part of a history lesson, then it becomes part of everyone’s history and culture.
Multicultural education, as it is currently done, does give us the base and ground needed to not only embrace diversity but learn to understand it. It has opened up a space for conversations on differences to occur. It’s just time to make the glue a little stronger. It’s time to move from Elmer’s school glue to big kid E60 metal adhesives.