On the Debate Over Multiculturalism

By Richard H. Brodhead

[Editor's Note: We excerpt here from "An Anatomy of Multiculturalism," in the Yale Alumni Magazine (April 1994), a few paragraphs in which Dean Brodhead offers some nuanced and reconciling wisdom for the participants in the "culture wars."]

There was a time when literate culture­the things educated people know and believe other people should know­possessed certain well-marked features. The contents of literate culture were internally coherent; they were widely agreed to; and above all they were agreed to be universal in their interest or meaning....The educational revolution for which multiculturalism is a shorthand name embodies an unravelling of this older consensus. Multiculturalism has arisen through the spreading of the idea that the so-called universal was in fact only partial: one side of the story pretending to be the whole story, the interests of some groups passing themselves off as the interests of all.

In recent years the growing suspicion of alleged universals has led to a heightened sense that there are always many parties to every human experience, and that their experiences of the same event are often profoundly divergent. In the wake of this realization, it has come to seem that real education is to be found not in the move from the local to the generalizedly "human," but in the effort to hear and attend to all the different voices of human history­the voices of those who have dominated the official stories, but also those silenced or minimized by the official account.

To its partisans, multicultural education is a matter of justice done at last. But there are many who are in sympathy with these social goals who still regard their educational effects as pernicious. One common cry is that this movement's political ends are leading it to abandon a long-cherished heritage education has passed down from generation to generation. But to this it can be replied that the history of education is a history of change more than any of us like to admit. English wasn't thought a fit matter for university study before the 19th century; it was a modern, vernacular literature, and education's business was with the Classical. My own field, American literature, entered college curricula later still, not much earlier than 1940, having been dismissed as a mere colonial appendage of English after English got itself academically accepted. Seen against such a background, it may be possible to regard current curricular revolutions as the latest chapter of a long story of change, not an unprecedented deviance saved for modern times.

But the central objection to multicultural reforms comes from the belief that traditional literate culture is more meaningful than newly promoted objects of study­that the lives and works of the hitherto ignored, however much we may wish to feature them for sentimental or political reasons, are less remarkable human achievements than the classics, and their study therefore less rewarding. When I came to the study of American literature, for example, I often read that Hawthorne, Melville, and the other geniuses of the American Renaissance wrote in opposition to a popular sentimental literature of unimaginable banality, and­in a beautiful convenience­my contemporaries and I understood that there was no need to read this work in order to be confident of its perfect worthlessness. From a later vantage I can testify that when one takes the trouble to look into them, ignored or downvalued traditions­even the mid-19th century sentimental novel­can turn out to contain creations of extraordinary power and interest. (There would be no need to make this point for our own time, when the achievements of women and minorities are unmistakable; what contemporary literature course would leave out such great American writers as the Asian-American Maxine Hong Kingston, or the African-American Toni Morriso, or the Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez?) My own career in the last 15 years has led me to be increasingly engaged with writers from outside the traditional canon. In my courses I now frequently teach authors from hitherto ignored traditions together with their more famous contemporaries­Frederick Douglass and Fanny Fern with Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott and Charles W. Chesnutt with Mark Twain. And in my classes such writers do not just add new material, they substantially change and enrich the terms on which every author is grasped and understood.

In my experience then, without causing any defection from the classic authors I still love, teach, and value, the changes associated with multiculturalism have brought a real renovation, a widening of the field of knowledge and a deepened understanding of everything it contains. Yet without in any way retracting what I have said, it seems to me possible to wonder whether current ways of conceptualizing and implementing multicultural education are as problem-free as some proponents imply.

To mention three problems very quickly: Multiculturalism has promoted an inclusionistic curriculum. Its moral imperative not to discriminate leads it to want to put everything in and leave nothing out. But there is an undeniable danger that the practice of universal curricular representation can degenerate into high-minded tokenism. Everyone has seen the new-style anthologies and curricular units with snippet samplings of all the nation's or world's peoples. Like all official school instruments, these show the strong sense of feeling answerable to a vigilant cultural authority that watches their every move. "Have we got our Native American? Our Asian-American? Is our black a man? If so, have we also got a black woman?"

I mean no denigration of these groups when I say that a curriculum composed by checking off the proper inclusion of such groups often results in tokenistic representation, and, worse, in what I'd call "Epcotization": the reproduction of complicated cultural experiences into so many little manageable units, pleasurably foreign yet quickly consumable, that we can wheel in and out of at high velocity and leave with a complacent sense that we have now appreciated that. To my mind, it would not be a hater but a lover of serious multiculturalism who would feel that much contemporary multicultural education teaches naive, presumptuous attitudes toward the cultures it intends to honor. A week on Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima or Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in a well-meaning modern classroom and the mysteries of Chicano or African life seem to lie revealed!

In addition to these potentials for naïveté, a second danger of modern multiculturalism lies in the tendency to confer a dubious absoluteness on group identities and group labels. Some parts of American society are experiencing a kind of romance of gender and ethnicity at present, in which an alluring aura comes to surround an object to the extent that it can be found to derive from a formerly marginalized group. Through this familiar logic, a book like Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree won wide adoption as a high and junior high school text in part because its author was understood to be an Indian (it has since been learned that he was a white segregationist); and even so powerful a book as Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God has received a curricular exposure out of all proportion to its interest because its author fit the double categories of Woman and Black. (For Hurston's ironic reflections on such an abstraction or generalization of her meaning, read her essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me.")

To practice this kind of extrapolation from the person to the category catches a valuable half-truth, namely that none of us is only individual, and all of us have had our individual lives shaped by the social positions we have lived in. At the same time, a perpetual and unself-critical practice of extrapolation from person to category negates the countervailing truth­that no human group is homogeneous, and that no personhas his or her identity set solely by the groups he or she belongs to. When we teach the habit of thinking of people as Men and Women and Whites and Blacks we run the risk of teaching­without meaning to­that people can be adequtely identified by such generalizing labels. But this way danger lies, for what made the multicultural revolution necessary in the first place was the existence of a world where qualified people could be denied places in schools because they were blacks, or women, and so on.

Last, just to the extent that they value the enrichment it supplies, proponents of multiculturalism will want to protect against another lurking danger: the presumption that its contributions have a monopoly on everything important to know. I confess that I have met products of recent education who knew the new pan-ethnic literary canon to perfection but who were ignorant of great traditional authors and content to be so; people who had subtle thoughts about (for instance) Nella Larsen's recently rediscovered novel Passing, but who took no interest in Faulkner's nearly contemporary novel of racial passing, Light in August, since Faulkner was a famous misogynist.

What is this attitude? A new manifestation, surely, of the same presumption I mocked in multiculturalism's more traditionalist foes, the presumption that what I already know and like is worth knowing, and what I don't is fit to ignore. But no educational program can contain the whole of wisdom. Every educational model close-mindedly embraced can be made a home for prejudice and limitation, the new as much as the old. Multiculturalism's great achievement was to teach us that traditional literate culture did not include everything worth knowing, and that the right corrective for its limits was to reach outside its boundaries and learn to appreciate the different things encountered there. But multicultural education will do itself a favor if it remembers to apply this same lesson to itself: to be aware of the boundaries its own enthusiasms establish, and to strive to feel the power of things outside its ken­the works of traditional culture, and the numerous world cultures that are not registered with any detail or seriousness even in "reformed" American education.


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