What does multiculturalism mean?

Jenny D has a series of great posts on multiculturalism in education, starting with the one where she asks education graduate students what it means.

“Could someone tell me what exactly is multiculturalism in education?” I asked. There is silence. Everyone stares at me. “I don’t know exactly what it is. I hear the word all the time, and it seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.” More silence. I wait. Then I say, “It seems to me that multiculturalism is a bag that’s full of good ideas and garbage, and that we stuff anything we want into it and just lablel it all under fog of the word multiculturalism. I don’t want to teach it until I know what it means.”

. . . They let me know that multiculturalism matters more than anything, and affects how you treat every kid. I don’t like the word because it is so misused and vague. It can be used as an excuse to tolerate a child’s illiteracy, because that’s his “culture.” Or, as scholar Lisa Delpit said (she’s a winner of a MacArthur genuis grant), white teachers allowed minority students to pass with inferior work products in the name of multiculturalism.

On the other hand, it could mean knowledge of a child and his background that a teacher needs or uses in order to help that child achieve. But the way we throw this word around, who would know what we mean?

So I say, “Okay, let’s talk about professionalism. Let’s think of a doctor. A patient walks in the door. Does the doctor thing: oh, it’s a Hispanic. I won’t do the lifesaving surgery because his culture might be against it. I’ll suggest more culturally relevant treatments, like herbs and tortillas? Of course not. That doesn’t mean that the doctor doesn’t bring in a Spanish speaking interpreter. So although the doctor might alter the environment in which treatment occurs, the treatment is not altered based solely on a patient’s culture or race.”

See, I’m just not sure that as a real professional, you can alter treatment based on a person’s race or background. I’m not sure that everything passes through that prism, that all knowledge, and all goals and desires, that all human flourishing is uniquely based on culture.

Read the posts on a Muslim student who refused to read her composition aloud in class till a boy had read first. The teacher decided the civic values of a democratic society trumped the girl’s religious beliefs about her own subordination.

About Joanne


  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    What is she doing in school anyway? She should stay in her daddy’s house until her husband comes to take her home.

  2. I’m a strong advocate for multiculturalism simply because I’ve seen how destructive an environment of monoculturalism can be.

    That said, let me voice a complaint.

    At my school we’ve been discussing how to improve the test scores of hispanics.

    A common suggestion has been to lower standards. This will at least boost their GPA.

  3. Robert,

    In my book what you’re talking about is bigotry cloaked as multiculturalism.

    My thing about multiculturalism is that it cannot displace knowledge as the primary goal of education. Education, at the very least, is the thing which makes sure that young people know enough reading, writing, and arithmetic to survive out there in the real world. When education is at its finest, it exposes young people to new things and ideas that open doors for their futures. In either case, it’s about imparting knowledge.

    Now multicultural knowledge, when used correctly, can help teachers impart knowledge more effectively, usually by helping teachers to avoid misunderstandings and offenses which can be a barrier to learning. Where it gets into the realm of bigotry is the point where one uses the term to argue that because of a student’s race or ethnicity that student should not be asked to do the same amount or quality of work. That’s a fairly clear line that we should not allow our educators to cross.

  4. Monoculturalism destructive? Robert, you need to put that crack pipe down and listen to yourself. Monoculturalism makes a nation strong because it generates a sense of community among all its citizens, precludes harmful racist pandering, such as lowering standards and instituting racial quotas, defeats attempts by minorities to tyrannize the majority, discourages groupthink, and stops so-called educators from putting students into pre-labled boxes instead of viewing them as unique individuals. Multiculturalism, which attempts to replace the melting pot model in favor of the salad bowl model, rents the fabric of society by dumping individuals into hermetically sealed compartments based on race/culture. “E pluribus unum” is a beautiful concept that has worked to make this country strong because we all see ourselves as part of an overarching, unifying whole. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is a self-destructive ideology erected by self-loathing elites that divides, separates, alienates, and advances victimology.

  5. Adrian and BadaBing, you both make excellent points.

    BadaBing, I’ll have to give more thought to what you wrote.

  6. ” the civic values of a democratic society trumped the girl’s religious beliefs about her own subordination.”

    The teacher is clearly imposing his personal secularist values on the student. Most of us believe that girls and boys should be educated in the same classroom, using the same methods and standards, treating students as individuals without reference to their sex. This is not however a fundamental principle of a democratic society.

    It is a fundamental principle of a democratic society – and common courtesy – to accomodate different perspectives about these issues if possible. The teacher could have made his point by asking another girl to go first.

  7. CRW

    It also would have been more effective from an education perspective not to turn a minor misunderstanding into a big kerfuffle. Part of teaching is keeping distractions out of the classroom, and interrupting the class to shoot down this girl’s religious belief was, on a practical level, an unnecessary distraction. How much do you think the kids learned in that classroom that day?

  8. It’s not surprising that the grad students couldn’t answer the question. Most grad students have not yet taught a day in their life, nor been exposed to much of people from other cultures, except perhaps on a surface level. What Adrian says is right on. I think we can even refine it by saying that what helps teachers teach better is knowing their students, individually. Part of what makes each individual is his culture. So there are many othe parts of the the individual I need to know–including his culture– in order to understand his educational needs. BadaBing, you sound like a paranoid xenophobe. And I think your understanding of multiculturalism is missing it completely. Multiculturalism, at least as I define it, is none of the things you said. Recognizing and openly discussing each other’s differences, cultural or otherwise is healthy, leads to better understanding and real unity. Monoculturalism, as you describe it, is not unity, it is uniformity. Conformity, even. In “E Pluribus Unum” both plurality and oneness are fully evident, simultaneously. You seem to want the oneness without the plurality. Why?

  9. Good point, Greg. I think our responses here all hinge on our definition of the word “multiculturalism.” In the post above, I had in mind the leftist definition, which essentially says that all cultures are equal, no one culture being better in any way than another. This definition is pretty much entwined with post-modernist thinking, particularly moral and cultural relativism. As a grad student in a cultural diversity class, the avid (rabid?) multiculturalist professor enjoined white students to “deconstruct” their whiteness in order to become effective teachers in our multicultural society. So I guess we’re multicultural only to a point. A lot of the stuff spewed forth by this “scholar” had a blatant anti-American bias, and Euro-centrism was a demon that had to exorcised. I could go on as there are many ramifications of this ideology (the prof was, indeed, an ideologue). However, I do not subscribe to the egalitarianism of the left. I do believe that some things are better than others, including cultures. For example, I believe that Hellenistic culture was superior to, say, the culture of the Persian Empire (oriental despotism), which Alexander the Great brought to an end. Actually, Alexander may have been the first multiculturalist, but I digress. Let me say that I was also speaking to the balkanization that multiculturalism fosters. I don’t think there are any historical instances of true multicultural nations being anything other than loose federations that break up as soon as the despotism that keeps them together falls apart or the despot dies. I also believe that it is in the best interests of society that immigrants assimilate and not remain separate cultural entities that vie against other cultural entities like pieces on a chessboard.

  10. I think we can even refine it by saying that what helps teachers teach better is knowing their students, individually.


    In my book, that’s just part of being a good teacher. But that also goes beyond multiculturalism, and it takes serious effort. One of my problems with multiculturalism is when teachers (and others) use it as a substitute for that serious effort. I’ve seen teachers use knowledge of a student’s culture as a substitute for knowledge of the student himself. That’s another way that multiculturalism can go bad.

    In short, when knowledge of different cultures is used to add to the knowledge of an individual, it is positive. When knowledge of different cultures is used to substitute for knowledge of an individual, it is negative.