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Making Multiculturalism: Boundaries and Meaning in U. S. English Departments

reviewed by Howard Miller - 2006

coverTitle: Making Multiculturalism: Boundaries and Meaning in U. S. English Departments
Author(s): Bethany Bryson
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804751641, Pages: 215, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

For those of us in the field of education, multiculturalism has always felt as if it were an exclusive part of our domain.  Multiculturalism, we would argue, has to do with working closely with schools and teachers and K–12 students to promote respect, understanding, and empathy as a means of preparing children to live and work successfully in an increasingly diverse society (Miller, 2000, 2000/2001, 2001/2002).  Ranked high among our heroes are Sonia Nieto (1999, 2003), Vivian Gussin Paley (1996, 2000), and James Banks (2000, 2003)—people who have made it their life's work to bring the message of cross-cultural understanding and a strong sense of equity and social justice to the classrooms and school children of the United States.  Thus, it was somewhat disconcerting to read the opening paragraph of Bethany Bryson's book, Making Multiculturalism:  Boundaries and Meaning in U. S. English Departments:

Hope for the future is routinely left at the doorstep of our schools and universities.  To policy makers, cultural change seems easy and inexpensive:  A brief memo should do it.  Teach the children to stop being racist.  Make textbooks more inclusive. Expand literary experience. Make well-rounded, deep thinking, culturally sensitive citizens.  According to this thinking, all social problems would dissolve in the face of a perfect culture. (p. 1)

Bryson, whose field is sociology and not education (nor English, as the title of her book might suggest), casts a critical eye at many of the beliefs and assumptions underlying multiculturalism and how it plays out in our institutions of education, particularly in college and university English departments.  Bryson chose to look at English departments, in particular, because they are the locus of one of the more heavily publicized battlegrounds over multiculturalism, through what is often referred to as the "canon wars," a long-standing debate over which works of literature should be studied in college English classes.  On one side of the battlefield lies the army of the right, led by literary critic Harold Bloom (1994) and conservative political pundit William Bennett (1984), both of whom argue on behalf of maintaining a consistent set of "classics" of Western culture as the basis for literature study.  On the other side fights the army of the left, an "anti-canonical 'Rainbow Coalition'" (Dasenbrock, 1999, p. 691) of multiculturalists, who decry the traditional canon as a bastion of "dead white men" and argue on behalf of bringing in greater diversity through the inclusion of minority voices and perspectives.

In order to shake loose from the headache-inducing debate, in which "every time an English teacher put together a reading list, the future of a nation hung in the balance" (p. 2), Bryson decided to focus her research on what actually was taking place within the English departments of four universities, whose anonymity she protects through the use of colorful sobriquets, the more traditional "State Star" and "Cathletic University," and the more progressive "Ivory Towers and "Multicultural State."  The bulk of the book analyzes how each of the English departments expressed and acted on its beliefs about multiculturalism.  

Bryson began her interviews with English faculty by asking them.  "How do you feel about multiculturalism?"  In doing so, she wanted to get a sense of what they meant by the term itself, as well as their stance.  Because Bryson let the faculty members speak for themselves, and because she quotes them extensively throughout her book, it is interesting to see that many felt quite conflicted, even when they professed to favor expanding the canon to include a greater diversity of voices.  Take, for example, these quotes from two English department faculty members. The first,  

I have no problem with multiculturalism except that there's only so much time you can give to the study of literature in four years. If you're going to give time to the writers that, in my terms, are not very good writers—at least not compared to Milton and  Shakespeare and other people in the canon—then we're losing some of the canon.  You can't have it both ways. (p. 50)

This is not a quote from someone speaking about adding greater diversity to a course in Milton or Shakespeare; it is from someone speaking about the teaching of literature in general.  The same holds true for the second example, from a faculty member who purports to value minority voices,

I think it's about time!  A lot more effort needs to be made among traditional English teachers to recognize, and place value on, African American and other cultural creations, other ethnic cultural creations. Not necessarily to judge them from the same perspective as they would something by Hemingway or Faulkner. (p. 51)

In both cases, the English professors paid lip service to the value of expanding the canon to adopt a more multicultural perspective, but then revealed their negative beliefs regarding the quality of the writing of minority authors. It's enough to make a multiculturalist's head spin!

It is through vignettes such as these that Bryson leads us to gain a richer understanding of the complexity of the issues related to teaching literature through multicultural perspectives.  The underlying message professors give to their students is at least as important as the selection of materials, yet most of the professors Bryson met with had not previously been asked to consider their stance on multiculturalism.  Only at one of the four sites Bryson visited had such conversations taken place in a deliberate fashion—the college she refers to as Multicultural State—where the faculty of the English department had gotten together to establish an explicit policy upholding a set of unequivocal beliefs about multiculturalism, including a pledge to "make a genuine effort to heighten . . . our students' awareness of tendencies to stereotype differences in culture, religious beliefs, gender, class, age, race and sexual orientation, and will at the same time encourage understanding of the above differences"(p. 81).

Each of Bryson's journeys provided her with and offers us a wealth of understandings of how multiculturalism plays out or fails to play out in English departments.  But in the conclusions she drew, it is clear the overt stance embraced by "Multicultural State" had the deepest impact on her beliefs about how we need to proceed if we are going to bring about the kinds of social changes embodied in a multicultural values system.  Bryson argues passionately in the end for the kind of intentional structures developed at that university,

The multiculturalism policy at MC State. . . produced profound social and cultural change, but, I would argue, not because it ensured that every student would be exposed to literature written by every category of person on the planet. . . . Rather, the policy affected order.  It said that multiculturalism would be an integral part of everything the department would do—every course professors taught, every instructor they hired, and every textbook they chose.  It put cultural difference at the center of all of their activities, and it defined multiculturalism as something important.  That effect constituted a profound cultural change. (p. 192)

Bryson's conclusions may seem as basic as the policy stands she mocked early in the book, yet they embody a truth that anyone interested in promoting the cause of multiculturalism in colleges (and in K–12 classrooms) should embrace.  Nothing much will happen beyond the superficial level of adding more books to the library until we get together and take the kinds of action that will bring about "profound social and cultural change."  This book is an excellent case study in "making multiculturalism" happen.


Banks, J. (2000).  Cultural diversity and education: Foundations, curriculum, and teaching (4th Ed.).  Boston:  Allyn & Bacon.

Banks, J. (2003). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley.

Bennett, W. (1984).  To reclaim a legacy:  A report on the humanities in higher education.  Washington, DC:  National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bloom, H. (1994).  The western canon:  The books and school of the ages.  New York: Harcourt.

Dasenbrock, R. W. (1999).  Why read multicultural literature?  An Arnoldian perspective.  College English, 61(6), 691–701.

Miller, H. (2000) All of us together have a story to tell.  The Reading Teacher, 53(8), 666–667.

Miller, H. (2000/2001).  A dose of empathy.  The Reading Teacher, 54(4), 380–381).

Miller, H. (2001/2002). Becoming a multicultural teacher.  The Reading Teacher, 55(4), 346–347.

Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes:  Creating multicultural learning communities.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Nieto, S. (2003).  Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural Education (4th Ed.)  Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Paley, V. G. (1996).  Kwanzaa and me:  A teacher's story.  Boston:  Harvard University Press.

Paley, V. G. (2000).  The kindness of children.  Boston:  Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 811-814
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12174, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:43:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Howard Miller
    Mercy College
    E-mail Author
    HOWARD MILLER is Associate Professor of Literacy Education at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York, and serves on the Executive Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English. Recent publications include a series of articles on multicultural education for the journal, The Reading Teacher. Representative titles are "Becoming A Multicultural Teacher," "Victims, Heroes, and Just Plain Folks," "Who Owns History?" and "Including 'The Included.'" Currently, he is completing the writing of a book on the impact of the No Child Left Behind legislation on teachers and school children.
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