When did it ALL BEGIN? Was it the Hammurabi Code? The Magna Carta? There are those who say the concept of multicultural education took hold in the U.S. after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case struck down the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision which allowed for “separate and equal” segregated schooling. Subsequent desegregation of schools led the way for the 1960s Civil Rights movement which spearheaded contemporary multicultural education when obviously discriminatory, racist practices in educational institutions were challenged by activists of color. This was followed by the 1970s feminist movement against misogynistic invalidation and erasure of women. Up next was the Gay Liberation movement which launched into the LGBT rights movement, followed by movements by people with disabilities and other marginalized groups fighting for basic recognition and respect. As part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty (1964), programs such as Head Start were created to provide preschool education to disadvantaged children, and in 1968, the Bilingual Education Act recognized the needs of non-English speakers.
Throughout the 60s and 70s slight emendations were made to educational programs and curricula to include information to validate previously maligned or ignored groups of people. However, these additions often existed as side notes, in separate subsidiary categories or in tokenizing instances of a single remarkable Other cropping up amongst the larger swath of normal (white, straight, middle-class male) Americans.
In the 80s, more noticeably multiculturalist approaches emerged. Theorists like James Banks operated from the concept of “educational equality.” His Dimensions of Multicultural Education charted these five dimensions of a good multicultural education: (1) content integration; (2) the knowledge construction process; (3) prejudice reduction; (4) an equity pedagogy; and (5) an empowering school culture and social structure.
As population demographics continued to change throughout the 80s and 90s, education changed not merely as a reflection of growing diversity but of obvious inequalities between population groups. Soon after, an ideological shift took place. ‘Multicultural education’ morphed from looking like the inclusion of previously excluded or maligned people to deeper, structural change in how educators talked about diversity. Instead of one ‘normal’ group or just a selection of ethnic groups, diversity started to look like multifarious, complex and overlapping groups relating to class, sexuality, gender, language, ability, etc.
As ‘multicultural education’ became institutionalized in scholastic settings, definitions shifted and a greater emphasis was placed on cultural pluralism. Whereas historically, representations of marginalized groups painted such groups as inferior while simultaneously and causally depriving those groups of education required to change the educational systems, now there were emerging histories of American lesbianism, previously unmentionable human rights violations and documentation of racial control from slavery to the prison system, etc.
Since the 90s, there has been a backlash against multiculturalism not just from conservative traditionalists but from those who take issue with the neoliberal marketing of multiculturalism as a product that keeps racism, classism, sexism and ethnocentrism intact while commodifying education and diversity as purchasable goods. Neoliberal understandings of multiculturalism are generally anti-affirmative action, pro-big business and depoliticizing of multiculturalism in favor of feel-good mantras of “we’re all different, hence we’re all the same.”
So, that’s what’s going on.
How do we teach about the history of multiculturalism? Here are some ideas:
- Challenge negative stereotypes and dominant narratives that exclude and hurt people
- Be aware that definitions and ideologies change, even as they continue to use the same names (ex: multiculturalism, education)
- Dissuade students and fellow educators from favoring single, uniform stories of what “America” is (white/male/middle class) as well as what “multiculturalism” is (always a good thing/always problematic).
- Good source of information: bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom