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History of Multicultural Education, Volume 1: Conceptual Frameworks and Curricular Content

reviewed by Argos S. Gonzalez - December 01, 2009

coverTitle: History of Multicultural Education, Volume 1: Conceptual Frameworks and Curricular Content
Author(s): Carl A. Grant and Thandeka K. Chapman
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0805854398, Pages: 378, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

What is multicultural education?  As a graduate student and English teacher in the Bronx I have been asking myself this question, as well as how I can implement tenets of multicultural education into a curriculum that focuses so heavily on state and federal standards.  Of course, this is not a new question or even an original one.  It seems that many attempts at defining multicultural education have been made by researchers and educators before.  The debates sparked by these attempts have implications that impact not only the classrooms in whch I teach but others as well, which are often segregated due to socio-economic reasons.  The History of Multicultural Education, Volume I: Conceptual Frameworks and Curricular Issues tackles the debates that helped define multicultural education and its effect on curriculum and content.  This volume has certainly shed light on some of the theoretical underpinnings and content of multicultural education that have deeply impacted my own education, and those of my students as well as countless others.       

Before speaking about volume one, however, it is important to quickly outline the stated intent and methodology of editors Carl A. Grant and Thandeka K. Chapman (2008) when compiling the six volume set on multicultural education.  They explain that it has been an “attempt to provide students, teacher educators, and researchers with a historical memory of debates, conceptualizations, and program accounts that formed and expanded the knowledge-base of multicultural education” (p. x).  With this in mind, the series, seven years in the making, set out to do a Herculean task in attempting to capture all the salient articles that have influenced multicultural education on a variety of topics.  Volumes one through six are Conceptual Frameworks and Curricular Issues, Foundations and Stratification, Instruction and Assessment, Policy and Policy Initiatives, Student and Student Learning, and Teachers and Teacher Education.  The editors used the electronic data banks Web of Science and ERIC, as well as the feedback from specialists in the field of multicultural education when selecting the articles. The result has been a comprehensive collection of articles that range in age and scope.  The editors mention that they tried to include the most referenced works in multicultural education, but reprinting costs and other limitations prevented them from doing so.  While no series can capture all the work published on multicultural education, and a serious limitation of the series is that no work published after 2002 is included, the series does capture a wide array of voices and ideology surrounding this topic.  

My focus, the first volume of the six-part series, begins by collecting articles that address the conceptual structures that have helped define the direction multicultural education has taken in our country’s educational system.  First, it is important to note that multicultural education has expanded its focus since its inception. Grant and Chapman  explain that “although the movement is rooted in struggles for racial equality, multicultural education readily includes physical disabilities, sexual orientation, issues of class and power, and other forms of bias affecting students’ opportunities for academic and social success” (p. xi).  Multicultural education, early on, positions itself as a broad concept, multifaceted, and with many voices.  Furthermore, the editors situate the importance of their work by explaining, “by no means consistent in definition, purpose, or philosophy multicultural education has influenced policy, pedagogy, and content in schools around the United States and the world.  In addition, it has stimulated rigorous debates around the nature and purpose of schooling and how students and teachers should be educated to satisfy those purposes” (p. xi).  The editors feel compelled to explain the “‘confusion’ which exists even today—more than thirty years after the movement began—over the meaning(s) of multicultural education” (p. 1).  Indeed, after reading the first volume, I did have a better understanding of multicultural education even if my new understanding is that multicultural education is inherently pluralistic and continues to redefine itself.

The volume is divided into four parts; the first and most comprehensive, “Conceptual Frameworks,” has 10 chapters that include publications from Margaret A. Gibson (1976), Christine Bennett (2001), Christine E. Sleeter (2000), and Geneva Gay (1997), among others. This is a key section of the volume because it begins to develop a clear theme throughout the book; definitions of multicultural education are hard to pin down.  As Gibson explains in the first chapter, “in reviewing the literature on multicultural education, we find that program proponents have provided no systematic delineation of their views, and that all too frequently program statements are riddled with vague and emotional rhetoric” (p. 29).  This lack of clear definition, and the consequences thereafter, are voiced again by critics in later parts of the volume.  What becomes increasingly clear, however, is that while multicultural education is hard to define—there are ways of understanding its goals, practice, and research.  Gibson, in her article, describes five approaches to conceptualizing multicultural education; Benevolent multiculturalism, Cultural Understanding, Cultural Pluralism, Bicultural Education, and, the one she favors—Multicultural education as the normal human experience.  She spends considerable time explaining each approach but concludes “given that individuals can and normally develop competencies in multiple cultures, the question for educators is how best to create learning environments which promote rather than inhibit the acquisition of multicultural competencies” (p. 30).  Gibson declares that multicultural education stems from the understanding that we are, and must be, multicultural.  While Gibson approaches multicultural education from an anthropological perspective, Bennett focuses on genres of research helping to describe additional aspects of multicultural education.

In “Genres of Multicultural Education,” Bennett identifies four main clusters of research each with three genres.  The main clusters are: curriculum reform, equity pedagogy, multicultural competence, and social equity.  She delineates their assumptions and the genres of research they influence.  She also gives examples of research and case studies within each.  This chapter, originally published in 2001, is the most recent and perhaps the most helpful to researchers hoping to locate their own work.  

Other noteworthy articles in the first section are Christine E. Sleeter’s “Creating an Empowering Multicultural Curriculum” and Geneva Gay’s “The Relationship Between Multicultural and Democratic Education.”  Sleeter’s article focuses on “exam[ining] central ideas that should undergird a multicultural curriculum that empowers” (p. 133).  She focuses on the epistemological foundation of multicultural education, and asks that we understand how knowledge is centered, how society constructs theory, and how we look at liberation and oppression.  She explains, “Liberation is a goal to strive for, rather than a reality that has been achieved.  Striving for it requires understanding how oppressions work, how a given group has adapted to and coped with oppression, and what kinds of strategies actually challenge roots of oppression” (p. 143).  

In her work, Gay argues that there are overlapping ideals between multicultural education and democracy.  She argues that “in order for a government of, by, and for the people to be representative and responsive, its fundamental structures and processes must incorporate cultural diversity because the people themselves are diverse” (p. 153-154).  She adds, “knowledge of, respect for, and promotion of cultural diversity are essential to the effective preparation of education for democratic citizenship” (p. 153).  Establishing pluralism as a key concept of democracy allows multicultural education to gain a position of great importance.  The clear argument is that without multicultural education, students will not be able to participate in our democracy.  

The central ideas of these articles, as well as the ones mentioned before, highlight the vast approaches, concerns, and ways multicultural education has developed and established itself.  The first section does a strong job of illustrating just why understanding multicultural education can be daunting.  There are many ways to imagine multicultural education.  It depends on the person defining it as well as their intent, which can lead to confusion.  Sleeter explains, “at first, asking whose experience defines how a narrative is centered may lead to fragmentation, as a multiplicity of narratives come forth” (p. 137).  There certainly is a multiplicity of narratives attempting to capture the meaning of multicultural education and Bennett and Sleeter do a strong job of grouping and explaining the different approaches to multicultural education.  However, if the best way to explain multicultural education is to group it by themes or genres that at their core are focused on a pluralistic view of America, and if that view seems to lay in the margins of the mainstream (as most authors in this section seem to imply), then Sleeter’s logic is correct when stating that “centering narratives from the margins has the potential to open up an examination of marginalization itself” (p. 137).  Thus, the main conceptual thrust of multicultural education, according to this, must be pluralistic and speak of, by, and for all those who are considered the fringe.  

Parts 2 and 3 speak about curriculum content with a focus on textbooks, teacher education, sex roles and sexism, and critical race theory.  This might seem like too wide of a spectrum, but it follows the reasoning presented in the first section, which speaks of multicultural education’s wide array of topics.  Gwendolyn C. Baker (1977) focuses on teacher education highlighting programs that existed in 1977; a couple of years after federal and state legislative acts were enacted.  She explores four multicultural teacher programs.  She describes the reason and purpose for implementing each program, the content of the program (typical classes taken and required, as well as credits needed), target populations, the extent of the program, as well as how they are funded.  The programs described are from San Diego State University, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, The University of Houston, and The University of Michigan.  It is an interesting snapshot of programs from this era and begs to be compared to the teacher training programs of today.  Although she mentions that these programs are flawed in some respects, she makes it clear that “if schools and teachers assume the responsibility for educating our youth, then they are compelled to equip our children to live in a culturally diverse nation and world” (p. 166).  These programs are presented as attempts to implement this approach.

James A. Banks (1969) and one of the editors, Carl A. Grant with Gloria W. Grant (1981), as well as Gwyneth Britton, Margaret Lumpkin, and Esther Britton (1984) focus on the contents of textbooks.  They lead quantitative studies, which showed small change in how and how many times certain populations were depicted in textbooks.  Banks’ “A Content Analysis of the Black American Textbooks,” originally published in 1969, found that “authors rarely take a moral stand when discussing such issues as racial discrimination and racial prejudice,” that while token changes were made with some black heroes incorporated into the textbooks, students “need to know the plight of the masses of black people even more” (pp. 186-187).  Banks concluded that more studies needed to be carried out to better know how blacks are treated in textbooks.  Later in 1981, Grant and Grant, and then in 1984, Britton, Lumpkin, and Britton answer the call but with a different approach.  Grant and Grant’s study focuses on how white and minority students are represented, and whether they are located in rural or urban centers in texts.  Britton, Lumpkin, and Britton write about a longitudinal study that looks at series and stories published from 1958 to 1982.  Their study focused on the frequency of characters and on role assignment by race and gender.  While their articles do not have surprising findings—white males have the highest frequency in stories and they are shown in a better light—the studies are informative and of great assistance for those wishing to do similar research.

Part 3, “Re-envisioning the Curriculum,” begins by exploring critical race theory.  Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate IV (1995) in “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education,” “draw parallels between the critical race legal theory notion of whiteness as property and educational inequality” (p. 283).  The authors assert that multicultural education has failed, as a reform movement, because it has not made any real structural change in the way students are educated.  The authors cite Jonathan Kozol, and point to the fact that drop out and failure rates for minority students are disproportionately higher than for whites—to support the idea that multicultural education has failed as a reform movement.  Ladson-Billings and Tate in part reference Cameron McCarthy when they “argue that the current multicultural paradigm functions in a manner similar to the civil rights law.  Instead of creating radically new paradigms that ensure justice, multicultural reforms are routinely ‘sucked back into the system’” (p. 285).  They conclude by stating perhaps the most biting critique found in this volume (even more disparaging than the articles found in the final section of the volume) when they assert “as critical race theory scholars we unabashedly reject a paradigm that attempts to be everything to everyone and consequently becomes nothing for anyone, allowing the status quo to prevail” (p. 285).  This sentiment fits the pattern of critique often repeated by many; multicultural education lacks a clear definition.  

Part 4, “Critique,” helps to further illustrate the way in which this argument is exploited.  Diane Ravitch (1990) leads this section with “Multiculturalism: E pluribus plures.” She applauds pluralism but attacks particularistic multiculturalism, which “insists that no common culture is possible or desirable” (p. 303).  She states that advocates wish to use an ethnocentric curriculum, which particularists believe is the only way minority students can achieve.  She disagrees wholeheartedly and explains that celebrations like Black History Month and Women’s History Month “teach all children that everyone, regardless of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or family origin, can achieve self-fulfillment, honor, and dignity in society if they aim high and work hard” (pp. 303-304).  She also attacks extremists, those that politicize education, and “ethnic educators [who] have seized upon the Mayan contribution to mathematics as the key to simultaneously boosting the ethnic pride of Hispanic children and attacking Eurocentrism” (p. 306).  Ravitch’s article is extremely interesting because it begs for a pluralistic curriculum but spends most of its time attacking various different ideas, which she groups under the umbrella of multicultural education.  It becomes clear that the perception of a lack of clear definition in multicultural education leaves multicultural education vulnerable to attacks that seem to belie what most understand multicultural education to be.  Indeed, Ravitch’s allegations, although sometimes exaggerated, would be fascinating to investigate.

Other authors in this section agree that multicultural education is valuable but also attack its definition and theoretical foundation.  Charles A. Tesconi (1984) in “Multicultural Education: A Valued but Problematic Ideal” points to “the failure of multicultural education proponents to carve out a unique theoretical foundation” (p. 317).  P. Rudy Mattai (1992) similarly bemoans the lack of clear definition in multicultural education in his article “Rethinking the Nature of Multicultural Education: Has it Lost its Focus or is it Being Misused?”  Mattai warns that the “multicultural education movement can no longer postpone articulating a more functional mandate” (p. 335).  It is also interesting to point out that Carl A. Grant’s (1978) article “Education that is Multicultural –Isn’t That What We Wean?” (found in the first section of the volume), is cited by Tesconi and Matai because Grant argues that the term multicultural education is flawed because as an adjective “it suggests a restrictive, a special, a narrow as opposed to broader, concept of education” (p. 148).  He further explains that by using this definition, multicultural education is incapable of making real change.  

The volume ends with “Cultural Literacy” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (1990).  In it Hirsch points to the SAT as proof of the “national decline in our literacy” (p. 340).  He points to “historical fact” when stating that “the national decline in our literacy has accompanied a decline in our use of common, nationwide materials in the subject most closely connected with literacy, ‘English’” (p. 340).  Although later Hirsch explains that the “cultural literacy [he envisions] permits a reasonable compromise between lockstep, Napoleonic prescription of texts on the one side, and extreme laissez faire pluralism on the other,” one can’t help think of the previous selections in this volume, which pointed to the lack of variety of voices or minority and female representation in school texts (p. 345).  Hirsch argues for a cultural literacy based on a national curriculum to cure our failing literacy.  However, he does not clearly explain how to establish and maintain this curriculum in the face of an increasingly diverse nation.  

In the introduction, the editors explain that critique of multicultural education helps develop and improve multicultural education.  While some of the articles in this section (and I would argue the whole volume) do point to significant flaws and a lack of significant improvement for minority students due to multicultural education—the articles in the last section seem to highlight misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding multicultural education, or they ask for a clearer definition, a definition that sometimes seems unattainable due to multicultural education’s emphasis on pluralism and the inclusion of many voices.

As a graduate student and a teacher in the Bronx I have always felt compelled to use a multicultural educational curriculum.  Luckily the curriculums in place at the high school where I teach and its administration are supportive of a multicultural approach.  Even so, I have always struggled to concretely define multicultural education and its content.  After reading this collection of articles, it becomes clear that my confusion is due in part because of the flux in debate and understanding of multicultural education.  It seems that teachers, students, and administrators should struggle to define their multicultural curriculum, and that research and debates should center on the idea of including as many voices as possible.  Perhaps Christine E. Sleeter explains it best:

Learning to construct a good multicultural curriculum is an on-going process. One is never finished learning to do this, because in the process of grappling with the question about what is most worth teaching in a pluralistic society, one is constantly learning.  (p. 144)

This certainly seems to be the case in my experience. The approach and methods I use in a classroom change frequently because my students and I are learning, and therefore my approach must also change.  Unquestionably, it would be easier to simply use the same lesson every year, or to have a static and easy to interpret definition of multicultural education, but this volume makes it clear that a pluralistic vision of our world explicitly prohibits this.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 01, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15855, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:55:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Argos Gonzalez
    The CUNY Graduate Center
    ARGOS S. GONZALEZ is an English teacher at the Bronx High School of Business and a doctoral student in the Urban Education Doctoral Program at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in educational policy studies.
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