Multicultural or Ethnic Studies?

Because of my work in both multicultural education and ethnic studies, I am sometimes asked whether I think it is better to infuse diverse groups throughout the curriculum, or to organize the curriculum around the study of one specific group. In other words, should we do multicultural or ethnic studies?

My response is “both.” But actually, the question itself sets up a dichotomy that doesn’t make sense to me. Those who ask it usually aren’t those who work extensively with these concepts, but rather individuals who support one approach but not the other.

Textbook Analysis Grid

Textbook Analysis Grid

Let me start with a problem that neither way of framing the issue names: Who is already at the center of the mainstream curriculum. Although curricula have added more attention to people of color and women than, say, thirty years ago, current analyses find that textbooks and state curriculum standards are still centered mainly around White Americans who are male, heterosexual, and middle class or above. In other words, most school curricula are already organized mainly around the study of one group’s knowledge, experience, and view of the world. You can check this out for yourself by doing a tally, using a chart like the one depicted above. The more books you (and your colleagues) analyze, the clearer the patterns will become.

Infusing diverse groups into the mainstream curriculum, while something I wholeheartedly support, runs into the problem that the curriculum already has a structure based around who is at the center. This is most obvious in history, where the storyline starts in Europe, moves to the East Coast of North America, and westward. While that storyline works well for the history of people of European descent, it doesn’t work well for anyone else. As another example, a literature curriculum that has a theme of immigration but not one of colonization sets up how literature by and/or about Mexican Americans is then selected and placed, in a way that highlights Mexican American immigrant experiences but not the experience of being colonized by the U.S. So, while I support infusion of diverse groups into the curriculum, I also strongly support “revisioning” curriculum from the standpoints of the intellectual scholarship of multiple marginalized groups.

This leads me to questions about organizing curriculum around a specific group that is not already at the center (White Americans who are male, heterosexual, and middle class or above). My first question here is what one’s purpose is, because you might approach curriculum and teaching somewhat differently if your purpose is to develop the ethnic identity of students who have learned to see themselves as “less than,” than if you are trying to help students from one group understand another group most of them do not belong to.

We know, based on a large amount of social science research, that students of color who are most likely to succeed in school have a strong, positive sense of their own ethnic identity, but also that schooling not only usually does not provide that, but undermines it. As students of color experience Euro-centric curricula and teaching, many get turned off to school. There are huge consequences here, in terms of being able to relate (or not) to what is being taught, feeling intellectually competent in the classroom and being treated as competent (or not), and feeling that people like themselves are capable of complex academic work – or not.

Ethnic studies, particularly at the K-12 level, has been demonstrating a powerful impact on countering the negative and alienating impact of a Euro-centric curriculum and conception of “good student” that marginalizes students of color. My 2011 review of the research found that ethnic studies projects designed to work with and build upon the identities and experiences of specific groups of students of color actually reverse declines in student academic learning. Such projects link students’ ethnic identities with an academic identity, and link school learning with purposes that matter to the students, such as addressing community issues. This is why ethnic studies has been taking off like wildfire across California and in other states as well.

But now to complicate the matter. Within any group, there is considerable diversity. No racial/ethnic group is homogeneous. So, to actually reach all of the students, an ethnic studies curriculum must address the diverse identities and experiences within the classroom and school, and the various forms of marginalization students experience, recognizing that they probably do not all have the same experiences. For example, Black men and Black women both experience surveillance and discrimination outside school, but some of the forms it takes differ by gender.

Middle class Latinos have quite different concerns from those who work in the agricultural fields; heterosexual Latinos do not face the same kinds of concerns as those who are LGBTQ. Curriculum needs to engage with the diverse identities and experiences of students in one’s classroom and school, which requires getting to know the students and how they see and define themselves.

Now let’s consider helping students develop an understanding and sense of reciprocity with people who differ from themselves. At some point, everyone needs to learn to engage constructively with people who differ from themselves. But teaching about “Others” is also complicated. For students who are not secure in their own identity; building that identity is where you start. Others can (and should) come later.

In any case, learning about “Others” needs to go beyond the superficial. As an example, I didn’t have much of a grasp of Black history until I actually studied Black history. Encountering bits of information about African Americans in a history curriculum oriented around White experiences didn’t give me anywhere near the same level of insight as taking a course on African American history. Further, after having taken a course on African American history, I realized that I couldn’t get past a superficial understanding of anyone else’s history without actually studying it in some depth. Or, think of it like learning another language. To learn a language, you have to immerse yourself in it. You don’t have to stay immersed in that one language forever, but without some immersion, your facility with the language will only get so far.

It may seem that now I’m creating an impossible curriculum planning problem by suggesting that all of us need depth in not only our own, but also everyone else’s history, literature, arts, philosophy, science, and so forth. In contrast, however, I am suggesting that learning to engage across our differences in a highly diverse and complex society is an ongoing, life-long process. School can build a basis for that learning and give us tools; schools will not turn out finished “multicultural” products.

In my work with teachers, I’ve used a “both/and” approach to the question of whether to infuse diverse groups throughout the curriculum, or to organize the curriculum around the study of one specific group. We do both. We do not “cover” everything or everyone. But I hope to leave teachers, and I hope that teachers leave their students, with a strong sense of themselves as intellectuals who are ethnically (and gender) grounded, and a sense that they can learn and engage with others on a deeper level than they realized before our work together.

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