A Different Approach to Teaching Multiculturalism: Pragmatism as a Pedagogy and Problem-Solving Tool

by Sue Ellen Henry - 2005

This article explores the moral imperative for teaching multiculturalism from a classically pragmatic point of view. Through an examination of the principles of classical pragmatism, embodied in the work of John Dewey, this analysis suggests that approaching multiculturalism from a pragmatic perspective lends a necessary moral foundation for the work of the multicultural educational reform movement. Critique of the conventional race-based approach reveals several durable dichotomies that can serve to distinguish Students of Color from White students in unproductive ways. I suggest that conceiving of the multiculturalism classroom's primary purpose as a developmental tool for individual students diminishes its potential as a location to sponsor a moral community that fosters a sense of the collective and of mutual multicultural problem solving.

This article explores the moral imperative for teaching multiculturalism from a classically pragmatic point of view. Through an examination of the principles of classical pragmatism, embodied in the work of John Dewey, this analysis suggests that approaching multiculturalism from a pragmatic perspective lends a necessary moral foundation for the work of the multicultural educational reform movement. Critique of the conventional race-based approach reveals several durable dichotomies that can serve to distinguish Students of Color from White students in unproductive ways. I suggest that conceiving of the multiculturalism classroom’s primary purpose as a developmental tool for individual students diminishes its potential as a location to sponsor a moral community that fosters a sense of the collective and of mutual multicultural problem solving.

I first started to notice an interesting pattern in the multiculturalism course I teach as I was planning the course for the third time. As I examined some student comments from a mid-semester informal evaluation, I began to notice that Students of Color experienced the early part of the course very differently from White students.1 White students frequently reported how significant the course was to their thinking about the importance of racial identity development, the ways in which they had benefited from White privilege, and the uncovering of ‘‘meritocracy’’ as a formerly unexamined belief. Students of Color indicated that the course was important for helping them recognize that some White people really cared about eradicating racism. At the same time, however, they remained critical of the class as a result of their continued amazement that the struggle with racial identity was just hitting the White students. Their question was simple: How could a multiculturalism course succeed at developing all students when one group of students was at such a significantly different place from another?

My intentions for the class were different. Although I wanted students to have a stronger sense of their racial identity and the important influence Teachers College Record Volume 107, Number 5, May 2005, pp. 1060–1078 race has on their experience living in the United States, I also wanted us to practice being multicultural. I wanted us to develop a praxis of utilizing our self-awareness and understandings of others, of talking about difficult issues, of exploring the troubles and controversies present in our own lives related to multiculturalism. In short, not only did I have a content I wanted us to get smarter about, but I also had capacities—listening, talking, position taking, and compromising—that I wanted us to learn and to practice.

I remained intrigued about the distinction in our relative critiques of the course. As I began to more thoroughly examine these positions, it became more clear to me that the student comments originated from a race-based position, whereas I was operating from a more classically pragmatic position. The students’ initial critique was based on the assumption that two primary goals of multiculturalism were to develop students’ individual racial identity and to teach them about ‘‘others’’ as racial beings. How could this happen for both groups in comparable ways, the Students of Color asked, if one group of students was just starting to encounter the idea of racial identity? My worries about the class were quite different. I wondered how we were going to be different, as individuals and as a class, as a result of having conversation around ‘‘taboo’’ subjects such as race and class. I wondered how my university would be different for having offered this class. I wondered how we could come together to try to address some of the interdependent issues we had around race, class, privilege, and multiculturalism.

Advancing from a psychological point of view, Carter (2000) suggests that a race-based approach to multiculturalism starts from the position that culture is equivalent to a racial group and that ‘‘racial identity . . . [is as] important [an] element of race as culture’’ (867). So important is race that it ‘‘operates as the primary and most fundamental locus of culture and difference’’ (870), and thus race is first among other sorts of important cultural markers, such as class and gender. Central to this perspective is the idea that racial identity is a significant influence on the ways in which individuals behave, as well as on the behavior between groups and within institutions. Starting from this framework when teaching multiculturalism, one would focus on the importance of self-understanding and -awareness relative to racial identity. Such exploration, Carter contends, is essential to cultivating people who are aware of their own prejudices and how these preconceived notions influence their behavior.

A pragmatic approach to teaching has a different focus. First, classical pragmatism starts with felt difficulties: problems people have and experience. Those experiencing a problem ought to be involved in the exploration, testing, and implementation of solutions. Using John Dewey’s approach, pragmatism is a form of ‘‘intelligent thinking,’’ an interactional approach that uncovers misconceptions and dichotomies in thinking that  ‘‘secure consequences which are liked’’ while eliminating ‘‘those which are found obnoxious’’ to a group experiencing a problem (Dewey 1927/1954, 34). Second, there would need to be a focus on the reciprocity between means and ends, on the ways in which means and ends come together in a mutually reinforcing way toward solving problems that people experience. As Hans Joas (1993) suggests, ‘‘in pragmatism . . . it becomes impossible to hold the position that the setting of an end in an act of consciousness per se occurs outside the contexts of action’’ (21). Third, and perhaps most central to this understanding of classical pragmatism, is the importance of communication and dialogue in an attempt to create an ever-expanding sense of community that will go beyond the classroom walls. Dewey’s work to understand democracy as a ‘‘form of associated living’’ supports this notion of collaborative exploration among a growing public of individuals trying to solve problems (Dewey 1916/1944, 87). As Dewey asserted, communication helps members of a public understand their commonalities and their differences, which helps lead to the ‘‘liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are in common’’ (quoted in Gouinlock 1976, 234).

Specific to multiculturalism, then, classical pragmatism suggests that classroom activity be focused on exploring real multicultural problems people experience while helping them see what group members share as well as their uniquenesses. In addition, a pragmatic approach would advocate that people practice communicating on issues related to multiculturalism in an attempt to develop a community, one driven by the ability to collectively respond to multicultural problems.

In this article, I wish to explore how teaching multiculturalism from a pragmatic point of view can overcome some of the problems associated with the popular race-based approach. In particular, I believe that framing multiculturalism from a pragmatic perspective offers multiculturalism a philosophically defendable moral underpinning for its focus on social justice. Such a foundation is critical to the project of multiculturalism in particular, for several reasons. As Carter (2000) suggests, basic ideas about the goals as well as the curricular and pedagogical intentions of multiculturalism ‘‘form the basis from which we attempt to influence and intervene in the lives of others’’ (864). Becoming aware of the assumptions that we use in framing social acts such as teaching means becoming more conscious of the ways in which we can cultivate the expected aims of such efforts, a process that, according to Simpson and Jackson (1997), is often lacking in educational reform efforts.2

In an effort to have the form of this article support its content and my main contention about the usefulness of classical pragmatism, I will examine some of the practices I use in my multiculturalism course to support this pragmatic pedagogy and then move to an analysis of these practices vis-a-vis pragmatism and a critique of a race-based approach. In this critique I emphasize that a race-based approach to teaching multiculturalism is important; people, especially many White people, need to come to a greater self-understanding of their racial category and the ways in which their race shapes their history and experience. However, I argue that a race-based approach alone incompletely addresses the most urgent issues of multiculturalism, including action for social justice and educational equity. Readers will find a great deal of conventional race-based education in the next section, which describes the course and much of what we do in it, yet I believe that a race-based education that emphasizes personal understanding and identity alone is an insufficient end for multiculturalism. Classical pragmatism can help shore up this insufficiency and offers a moral foundation for this important work.


The course I teach is an elective called Multiculturalism and Education offered in the Education Department of the university where I work. About half the students in the course are typically preservice teachers, and the other half come from disciplines throughout the university. White students make up the majority of the class and the majority of the entire student population of my small private, liberal arts university, with about one-third of the students in the course representing African American, Asian, Asian American, Latino/Latina, and biracial backgrounds. At the university, approximately 15% of the student body are Students of Color, including our international population, which currently accounts for about 4% of this figure. About two-thirds of the students in the class are female. I am a married white female in my fifth year of a tenure track appointment. I have worked in universities as an administrator and teacher for the past twelve years. My disciplinary area is foundations of education, and I teach courses in both teacher education and the liberal arts track in the Education Department.

The course is capped at twenty-five students and is a writing-intensive course, which means that we use writing as a way of learning. Writing assignments include frequent drafts of two major papers, weekly journal entries, and in-class writing exercises. During the first third of the course, students write their racial/class autobiography, drawing on the work of Tatum (1999) and several others. In the second third of the course we read texts that examine race, class, gender, and ethnic differences in school settings, including Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin’s (2001) fascinating book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, a study of children in a multiracial/multiethnic day care center and how they use race and ethnicity as a significant element in their play and friendships. The final third of the course focuses on multicultural strategies, using James Banks’s (2002) An Introduction to Multicultural Education as the primary text. In addition, there is a service-learning component in which students spend fifteen hours over the course of the semester in an educational or nonprofit agency examining how multiculturalism affects the work that goes on at the site.

In attempting to orient this course around the notion of pragmatism, I first start with the idea of voice. Because communication is the center of action directed at solving problems, I believe we need to practice speaking and actually learning language with which to engage multicultural issues.3 We also need to practice listening and actually hearing others’ perspectives. One of the significant ways in which I try to center voice in the course is by scheduling conference calls with authors of texts used in class. I have found that the conference calls are of enormous value for us and our thinking. Not only do students report that talking with the author ‘‘made the book more real,’’ but through the conversation we are able to expand the circle of people responding to our beliefs, thereby increasing our potential for growth and action using sophisticated knowledge of racial and multicultural issues. We are able to ask critical questions of authors that follow our own lines of thinking, helping us to establish and use critical thinking skills relative to issues of diversity. Beyond these effects, conversations such as these create the opportunity for us to see ourselves as part of something larger than the classroom environment and to connect with people outside of the campus who are also trying to figure out what they believe and how to act congruently with their beliefs.

I also frequently use guest speakers and panels in this course as a way of increasing the range of our conversations. An example of the power these activities can arose one semester when I arranged for a former university student to have dinner with us and to take us through some simulation exercises focused on issues of identity and power. The week before his visit I told the class about his current position as the director of diversity at a small private elementary school in Connecticut. I also announced that he was an alumnus and had served as the director of the multicultural center at the university after he had finished his undergraduate degree. I did not, however, tell the students the visitor’s race. Justine, a self-described white female from the class, wrote about the experience of having dinner with our guest and how it jarred her thinking:

Because I am thinking consciously and investigating the way I perceive others, I can rid [myself of] these subconscious tendencies [toward stereotyping]. For the first time in my entire life, this past month I had the opportunity to eat dinner with a black man. I honestly have never had a full conversation with a black person. . . . At first I was surprised that he was black because when I hear ‘‘alumni,’’ a certain stereotypical image popped into my head. The problem with this image is [that] I never stopped to question myself. Why does [our university] automatically have to entail whiteness? (Justine, racial/class autobiography, 14)4

Looking at this quote from the point of view of voice is interesting for a number of reasons. On one hand, Justine’s writing is a form of voice; her voice is reflected back to her while she is writing her thoughts. Voice is also present in the drafting process. In an effort to make the notion of voice as authentic as possible, I record my comments to student papers on audiotapes. Using tapes allows me to explain myself in greater depth, while also demonstrating how my own thinking changes as a result of discussing the paper aloud. In my comments to her, I asked Justine to investigate further why she assumed our guest would be white. What ‘‘evidence’’ did she have for this assumption? What did she want to do, now that she was more aware of this default assumption? How did she want this awareness to present itself in the future? Through the act of writing, Justine’s ideas about stereotyping and how to address stereotyping as a problem in her own thinking becomes manifest.

Another way of seeing voice in this situation is to explore the talking and listening that went on during the dinner and in the class. Christina, another self-described white senior, described to the class during her final class presentation the feeling of being pushed by our speaker to define herself during one of the in-class activities he led. ‘‘When Joe kept asking me to describe why I hadn’t selected white as an important category in my identity, it made me realize that I didn’t acknowledge my privilege. I was aware and appreciative of it in a unconscious way in that I treated other people well, but I didn’t state it as a feature of myself because I felt guilty about the history and power that this feature gives to me. I didn’t want people to see me as privileged’’ (Christina, final presentation, December 2003). Thus, two important elements emerge from the notion of voice. First, there is an internal revelation of the self to the self. Second, frequently these self-revelations become part of the public discourse of the class, allowing all of us to experience and reflect on these new developments.

While guest speakers and conference calls are not new pedagogical ideas per se, the pragmatic philosophy underlying their use is different from a race-based philosophy. When employed from a race-based orientation, these types of activities reify race ‘‘as an experience . . . [which] supersedes all other reference group experiences’’ (Carter, 2000, 870). Thus, simply having ‘‘underrepresented’’ voices made evident in the class might be the primary contribution of these activities. As Carter (2000) maintains, teaching from a race-based approach ‘‘teaches about history of racism and sociopolitical use of race, culture and racial-identity development . . . promotes self-exploration and introspection for cultural learning’’ (867). Although guest speakers and conference calls can likely provide these elements, they can also be so much more if they are used in a pragmatic manner. Instead of being understood solely as people talking from their position as racial beings, these conversations can be understood as people speaking from racial identity as well as other factors that shape senses of self, such as gender, religious commitment, community affiliations, and occupational and personal aspirations. Such dialogue can help students in the class to know themselves better and to know how they may act in the future as a result of the conversation. In order to encourage this effect, I try to use these activities in ways that help them to become part of our class community. After a conference call or a guest speaker, we explore what we think we heard. We usually do some writing on this topic, and then we explore the meaning of these interpretations: We push ourselves to examine what influence these interpretations have for other texts in the class, elements of past conversations, and problems we anticipate in the future. In this way, these conversations are not ends in themselves but are understood as both means and ends.

Race-based approaches to multiculturalism look at identity formation and cultivation as an end in itself. Consistent with race-based approaches to multiculturalism, I agree that self-knowledge is a basis for personal change and unlearning subconscious racism that accumulates as a fact of simply living in a racist environment. However, ‘‘self-knowledge’’ as an end in itself is incomplete. From a pragmatic point of view, and consistent with the social justice and equity focus of most multicultural literature, we have to be supported in knowing what to do with this (sometimes newfound) knowledge.

Making self-identity and self-knowledge both a means and an end of the course requires that we shift our focus from personal identity development to the application of identity development to various real-life situations. There are three important elements of the course that I believe support capacities that extend our self-knowledge into action. The first is a shift in the second third of the course toward investigating how race and racial ideas manifest themselves in school settings. Investigating texts that deal with these matters during this time in the course allows us to step outside ourselves to see how other people are understanding the concepts of race, prejudice, and privilege and how they put these understandings into practice. I saw an example of this type of position taking as students reacted to The First R. In this insightful and provocative text, Van Ausdale and Feagin (2001) initiate their research from a premise that was challenging for many of us to understand: that children are not ‘‘innocent’’ of racial learning but rather are developing their understanding and use of race from the very beginning of their lives. What we saw through examining this text and speaking with Van Ausdale via conference call was how her orientation to racial learning influenced her thinking about the importance of race. One student e-mailed me on this very topic after speaking with Van Ausdale and discussing her book in class:

After hearing your ideas and talking to Debbie, I have gained a somewhat new insight on the book. Although there are still some things I don’t agree with that Debbie presents, I do see other things that I was blocking before. For example, Debbie brought up the idea of people rejecting her findings because they don’t want the idea of childhood innocence to be destroyed in their mind. I realized that this is exactly what I was doing. There are many other ideas that she and you opened my eyes to tonight. . . . I didnt [sic] want you to think that i [sic] was being close [sic] minded on the issue. I think its [sic] just hard sometimes to see the world from views other than my white middleclass one. (Jocelyn, personal communication, November 6, 2003)

Jocelyn’s insights reveal that she’s beginning two critical elements of a pragmatic orientation to multiculturalism: First, she is seeing that her orientation, shaped to a certain degree by her racial identity, shapes her impression of the world. Second, she’s beginning to see how these positions alter her thinking, shape her approach to problems, and ultimately change that way she acts in the world.

A second pragmatic approach in this vein is to thoroughly discuss problems we see occurring on campus and in our own lives relative to multiculturalism. Two semesters ago, for example, our campus learned of what has been called the ‘‘blackface incident,’’ in which two male students dressed as Venus and Serena Williams, complete with blackface, for a fraternity Halloween party. Our class returned to this incident many times over the course of the semester; discussion started with determining whether this incident constituted an act of racism and advanced to issues such as how to discuss the matter with people who didn’t understand why the incident created such racial tension on campus. Teaching with these controversies as the primary ‘‘text’’ helps us focus the more academic and theoretical material of the class on the moral problems we currently face, while attending to the moral purposes of the classroom with particular fervor and passion.

Connecting what we were doing in class to problems in our lives created an interesting outcome. When a ‘‘semipublic’’ forum to discuss the blackface incident was cautiously announced by our dean of students, our class discussed our role in the meeting.5 Of the twenty-one students enrolled in the course that semester, fifteen attended the forum, which lasted for nearly four hours. Many of these students spoke during the meeting. Some explained why they thought the incident was troublesome, why it was consistent with a growing climate of intolerance and disrespect on campus, and how the two male students involved might respond so as to help to make amends. Others declared their lack of understanding about why people were so upset by the incident; they asked genuine questions and received passionate, articulate responses from attendees who were deeply offended. These same sorts of conversations took place in our class both before and long after the meeting. Because this was an issue that we were discussing in our more private settings between friends, with teammates and colleagues, it continued to arise when we opened class up for broader discussion of how to apply what we were learning to problems we were experiencing.

Key to fostering these types of conversations is the building of trust between members of the class. Some of the ways that we practice the capacities necessary for constructively examining our problems and finding acceptable responses are through extensive personal introductions over several class days, community-created goals and expectations for the course, frequent formal and informal surveying of our reactions to the class and the pedagogy of the course, and an assignment I adapted from Tatum (1992) called a ‘‘thoughts tape.’’

Introductions usually last for at least some part of each class session during the first two weeks, beginning on the first day when we all bring an object to class that represents our racial background and use it as an opportunity to tell the class about our racial identity. Many students, particularly White students, report that this exercise is difficult; for some it is the first time they have thought about their racial identification. Instead, White students frequently bring items that represent their ethnic origin, such as Irish soda bread, flags from their grandparents’ country of origin, and pictures of their immediate and extended family. Thus in their initial experience with the course, they interpret the issue of race as an issue of ethnicity. They often remark that although they are aware that race and ethnicity are not the same, they had difficulty finding an object that represented their being white, since that’s what they assume to be American. Students of Color often bring similar items but are more likely to describe these items in terms of their racial content; a family picture usually accompanies an extensive discussion of the racial makeup of their neighborhood, school, and church. Besides this initial exercise, subsequent introductions are often conducted with changing groupings of students and concentric-circle exercises in which a small group examines some issue or a short reading by responding to stem questions.

Communally determined expectations and class goals are other important elements to a pragmatic multicultural classroom. During the first two weeks of the course we bring to class some ideas about what we would like to learn and experience in the course, along with some expectations that it would be necessary to fulfill to achieve these goals. We meet in small groups for a short time sharing our ideas and rewriting the language to account for overlaps and differences. Then the small groups present their goals to the larger group; after we synthesize the goals, we then turn the conversation to the types of behaviors we need in class to foster these goals. In the fall of 2003 students created a list of goals that included items such as ‘‘don’t raise hands, bring personal experiences to class and share with others, feel more comfortable talking about backgrounds and use appropriate language when doing so, share our knowledge from this class with others’’ (class list, EDUC 225). The expectations we determined in order to reach these goals included items such as ‘‘make sure to listen to all a person has to say, if you don’t understand or want to comment ask for clarification or paraphrase, use each other’s names when addressing them or building on what someone has already said, keep things said in class confidential, be sensitive and forgiving towards words that are used’’ (class list, EDUC 225).

At least twice each semester before the final evaluation of the course, we write about some of our reactions to the class. As Tatum (1992) advises, I usually inform students that during certain points in class, their emotional reaction to their racial identity development may make them want to stop coming to class or withdraw in other ways. Periodic surveying and meeting with small focus groups helps increase our reflection about the course and gives us an outlet for our emotions. It also formalizes our opportunity to collectively address problems that may be occurring in class. I collect written responses to open-ended questions about how the class is going, how we’re doing on achieving our goals, and how we’re behaving relative to our communal expectations. I then collate the comments and make overheads of all the anonymous responses. We spend significant time examining how we’re doing as a class in reaching our goals and considering what we need to adjust in order to get there. One example of some significant changes that took place as a result of our mid-semester evaluation came during the spring of 2003, when several of us remarked about the ways in which we were treating each other during discussions. One person wrote this statement in her anonymous survey:

I think that we generally respect and listen attentively, yet people still laugh and denigrate people’s opinions at times. Some of this may be uncontrollable to a certain extent (facial emotions or having a particular type of humor), yet I feel that people sometimes attack others’ opinions without giving ample time to reflect on what the person has said, or even truly giving them a chance to finish what they were trying to say. I also feel that people don’t generally seem to give others the benefit of the doubt before they respond to a comment. We all seem very accepting and are willing to agree with someone if we share the same beliefs, but I definitely sense tension when people disagree. . . . The only thing I feel we really need to collectively work on is taking more time to think and understand what someone is saying before responding to the comments they make. (anonymous class survey, spring 2003)

Another person agreed: ‘‘I feel like sometimes people are jumping at things people say without waiting to see what the actual intention of the comment is. I think this problem is hindering the regular attendance of the class’’ (anonymous class survey, spring 2003).

In response to these and similar critiques of the class, we changed classroom assignments to allow students to sit in a large circle, instituted a short reflection time at the end of each class session in which students prepared short free-writes on how we handled class discussion that session and then shared that information with the rest of the class. Actually making changes following such communal reflections, I believe, reinforces the idea that we are in charge of making the experience of the classroom and that we have the power to alter the course of the class should it not be meeting our expectations. It also supports the notion of praxis: acting on one’s world in order to change it.

The ‘‘thoughts tape’’ exercise is designed to help students get a clearer sense of their initial ideas about multiculturalism and to set the stage for their collective reflection on individual and class changes over time. In the beginning of the course I ask students to explore their beliefs regarding multicultural issues on a cassette that they pass in to me. I assure them that no one, including myself, will listen to the tape; it will be kept in strict confidentiality. In preparation for the final class period, I give back each student’s tape. After listening to their original thoughts, students create a ten-minute presentation on the changes they’ve experienced and the new questions that have arisen for them since the beginning of the semester. Almost unanimously, students claim this experience, along with the racial/ class autobiography, to be one of the most powerful learning activities we have explored in class. Lucy, a self-described white female student, explored the importance of her thoughts tape in her final presentation to the class:

I signed up for this course because I wanted to expand my knowledge about multiculturalism on an individual/personal level, but what I’m really coming out with is an understanding that multiculturalism also largely functions on an institutional/social level—societal level is an important aspect of multiculturalism, which is why it can be highly effected [sic] by our educational institutions. My understanding of what multiculturalism includes has expanded greatly since taking this class. Originally the word was based around language, special festivals, race, maybe even special types of food. Now the word includes class issues and racial issues—and is surrounded by much more vocabulary like majority, minority, privilege, target/agent. It encompasses many more issues than it used to for me. . . . After listening to my recording from the beginning of the semester, I realize that now I have a much better grasp of all the problems discrimination against race and class creates and how pervasive it is—I notice it more now and recognize how it occurs all around me, especially in the media . . . instead of my original belief that it . . . minimally really affected me. (Lucy, final presentation, December 2003)

One of the benefits of adopting a classically pragmatic approach to teaching multiculturalism is that this perspective alters a common misunderstanding in multiculturalism, one that Lucy explores in the beginning of her presentation and one that a race-based approach alone often cultivates: that ‘‘becoming comfortable with multiculturalism’’ singly requires ‘‘exposure’’ to people of different races. The focus of a pragmatic multicultural classroom is on what we must do to make change, in order to respond to the challenges that Lucy articulated in her presentation. In this manner, learning about oneself and one’s racial identity and the ways that racial identity shape social experiences in the United States becomes both a means and an end, rather than an end alone.

One of the liabilities of a pragmatic approach is that the focus on problems can become too localized and we can miss the importance of the interdependency of choices and behaviors that undergirds Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy. In an effort to make sure that we understand how our behavior is connected to other community groups and the interdependency among people for finding solutions to multicultural problems, we use service learning. By having students select different sites through which to experience multiculturalism and then deliberately integrating the examination of these experiences into both the classroom and writing assignments, I hope to expand the classroom beyond the conventional walls and insert more lived experience with race and racial inequality into the class environment as a valid way of knowing. Rather than only ‘‘learning’’ from books, films, and other conventional authorities, through the service learning environments students can begin see themselves as knowledge producers and interpreters of racial material, as well as actors in a racial environment, actors whose actions matter in the grand scheme of how race is understood and used in multiple ways.

Reflective of the power of service learning to serve as a bridge between the theoretical and the practical are the following comments from a first-year, self-described white female student from fall 2003. She selected tutoring English as a second language students in a neighboring high school and wrote in her journal about the kinds of issues she found through her experience and how this experience connected to her future as a school psychologist:

[At my site] there are two boys who speak Spanish as a native language, one of whom is a senior and is in lower level classes. He’s so smart; he can do all the work when he and I sit together. And his being in lower level classes really bothers me because it really seems that there are ways that he would be able to succeed in higher level classes that might give him more options in the future. Is there not funding or enough staff available to have someone work with him in the higher tracked classes? Is there not funding to get him books in Spanish so he can keep up with the course content? The issue of racism within the school system is really interesting and troubling to me. I am looking forward to becoming a school psychologist and I hope that I will be knowledgeable enough to be able to recognize it within the school system that I will eventually/hopefully be working in. (Lori, journal entry, October 2003)

By expanding the community of our classroom, Lori had to see herself as an actor in the racial complexity of her world and to make plans about her responsibilities relative to race after college.


These classroom activities are not new in and of themselves; many teachers use these types of collaborative efforts to facilitate classes. In fact, many faculty adopting a race-based approach may use these practices. I contend, however, that using these methods from the foundation of race-based multicultural education undercuts their potential power in fostering multiculturalism’s ultimate goal: social justice. In particular, using these approaches working from a race-based orientation effectively truncates the possibility for students and teachers to see their individual and collective work as connected to something beyond themselves and relegates it to solely a classroom experience.

One of the reasons classroom isolation is more likely to occur in a race-based multiculturalism course is that race-based approaches affirm dichotomies between racial groups. Although one of the benefits of a race-based approach is that everyone, including whites, has a race (Carter 2000), one of the drawbacks is that distinctions between racial groups are emphasized over other important reciprocal interests. Within a race-based model, individual variability is afforded to individuals within contiguous racial groups (Carter 2000); however, the myopic focus on race reifies this cultural marker to the exclusion of other important markers. Thus, race becomes a binary. Moreover, viewing members of various racial groups as separate entities fails to account for what these groups hold in common, what they all want, and the unique human ways in which collective work can help them find solutions to problems that address their communal and particular interests.

Interestingly, this dichotomy appeared in my own early thinking on this topic. In an early draft of this article, I examined racial identity theory for answers to what students from various racial groups needed from one another. After this extensive treatment, I came to realize that I started the analysis from the position of Students of Color and White students as separate, distinct, whole entities. As one reviewer kindly pointed out to me.

Since the author has just finished a section about how pragmatism encourages avoidance of dualisms and restrictive abstractions, it is a little jarring to be handed an analytic scheme rooted in a dualism and a rather abstract stage theory of identity development and be told that it is central to the course. (anonymous reviewer, January 2004)

This is not to say, however, that a focus on what we have in common should be mistaken for the belief that we are all just members of the same race: the human race. The power of pragmatism is that it encourages members of a public to represent their uniquenesses as a way of finding solutions to problems that can be responsive to both commonly held mutual interests and particularities as well. This is quite different from the notion that differences between people don’t exist or don’t matter. Instead, pragmatism critiques race-based approaches by suggesting that only knowing our differences is not enough and, in fact, may be detrimental to our working collectively to address issues that influence how we live our lives.

In addition, the overly developmental and individualistic approach found in the race-based orientation draws a distinction between the individual and society and makes the assumption that individual growth leads to social growth. By focusing on individual development and awareness as an end in itself, schools become about fostering individual development that presumably will generate social development and progress in society. Such attention can make individual growth the primary goal of the classroom in a way that ignores the powerful communal aspects of classroom life.

In discrediting this perspective, Dewey claimed that the inherent relationship between the social and the individual gave rise to a moral purpose for classroom life, a purpose that emerged from its social situation. As Dewey wrote,

These two facts, that moral judgment and moral responsibility are the work wrought in us by the social environment, signify that all morality is social; not because we ought to take into account the effect of our acts upon the welfare of others, but because of facts. Others do take account of what we do, and they respond accordingly to our acts. Their responses actually do affect the meaning of what we do. (quoted in Gouinlock 1976, 177)

Instead of the classroom simply being an educational space wherein individual students’ identities are fostered, pragmatism suggests that the classroom can help to create the opportunity for students to see their interdependencies and witness how such connections emphasize the moral nature of the classroom environment. Awareness of these interdependencies and the mutuality of collective interests can be the starting point in the development of a moral community, one that can actively address the moral problems that it faces, even if the particular moral problems affecting each such community are different.

From this pragmatic perspective, social progress and order are derived from the ability of a collectivity to solve its problems through a rational process of inquiry, reflection, and constructive conduct. Social order, therefore, is found in the continuing capacity of a collectivity to successfully address its problems of interdependent action. This conception of morality ‘‘portrays moral life as a set of lived agreements that do not exist within individuals per se but are created between individuals engaged in a process of solving their moral problems with solutions that are sensitive to their lived situations’’ (Henry 2001, 276). If students are able to talk openly and honestly with one another, exposing their thinking to the scrutiny and reaction of their classmates, then the opportunity for the development of reciprocal needs and collective moral problem solving can be initiated.

Pragmatism asks the question ‘‘What are we all doing here and how do we need each other to do it?’’ Race-based approaches ask, ‘‘What experiences help students as individuals move from a less to more sophisticated racial identity status?’’ Both questions are important; as one can see from the presentation above, a race-based approach is firmly detailed in the syllabus of our course. It is, however, a secondary orientation for the class. It is my belief that the pragmatic question above is more likely to go unasked as a result of the dearth of pragmatism in the teaching of multiculturalism and multicultural theorizing. In advocating the use of prophetic pragmatism as an alternative to multicultural education, Milligan (1999) supports a balance between these two questions by reminding readers of the ultimate purpose of multicultural education that can be reached when approached with a pragmatic perspective in mind: ‘‘it is clear that prophetic pragmatic multicultural education would have at its heart a moral vision of justice and love rather than a bewildering multiplicity of reified identities’’ (4). Although prophetic pragmatism is different from classical pragmatism in some important ways, the key features of collective action, an expanding sense of community, and the mutuality of means and ends remain consistent between the two schools of thought.

Such a rearticulation of the work of the multicultural classroom can help educators avoid what Milligan (1999) terms the ‘‘idolatry’’ of current multicultural education, which reifies racial positions in inaccurate and unhelpful ways. By examining what students in a multiculturalism classroom have to teach each other and the ways in which they can help one another address the problems they have relative to multiculturalism, these reified associations with race can be reconstructed to be ‘‘a way of seeing ourselves as connected to one another’’ rather than an element that keeps people apart (Judy Helfand, personal communication, 2002). Given the pressing nature of multiculturalism as a contemporary moral issue in society, the creation of such a possibility seems a reasonable and necessary expectation for the multicultural education classroom.


Not everything about this class is pragmatic in orientation. Like many faculty, I work and teach in a system that constricts the extent to which I can craft a course with students before the first day of class. My walking in on the first day with a ten-page syllabus, activities determined, books ordered, and writing assignments devised substantially and negatively influences the ways in which this course can completely represent a pragmatic framework. If we were starting from a pragmatic position, from the point of the view of the persons in the class and their particular interests and issues related to multiculturalism, we would surely have far more collaboration on the construction of a syllabus, the writing assignments, the books we would read, and the activities we would engage in. It is my experience, however, that students are deeply appreciative of the constraints that I work within and the ways in which those constraints influence them. When I explain the pragmatic philosophy that undergirds the course and the limitations we face when executing it, students are overwhelmingly positive and ready to work where they can.

And yet, the fact is that the members of this class do have a great deal of power to shape the moral climate in which we are learning. I believe that such a moral base is critical to educational reform efforts such as multiculturalism. Without this stronghold, these efforts easily become disconnected practices, isolated attempts, and at their worst, bits of knowledge and experience that do nothing to address the problems that initiated them. In attempting to orient this multiculturalism course primarily around a pragmatic versus race-based point of view, I have tried to offer the opportunity for cultivating this moral base. Because of the focus on the collective in pragmatism, perhaps the most important element of the pragmatic multicultural education class is what the students are doing rather than the traditional focus on what the teacher is teaching. Thus, the moral base for this course comes about as a result of what we in the class do together rather than solely an ascent to a more sophisticated racial identity status. While I’m pleased when most (particularly White) students say that the course has been helpful to their sense of racial identity, my primary aim is to create a situation in which we can work as a moral community on the problems we experience relative to multiculturalism: to learn what we can do with our knowledge and how we can do it and to have an experience of such praxis.

Praxis is a difficult capacity to learn. But when one learns it, it is incredibly powerful. One young woman related her experience of praxis. Her comments are especially interesting because she came to the course having taken many courses with similar content in sociology, history, and psychology. But as she explains, this book knowledge was incomplete and actually had some negative side effects:

Before this class I thought I knew everything about multiculturalism. My boyfriend is Hispanic and I’m White. I thought that being in an inter-racial relationship meant that I was comfortable with my racial identity. And I’d had a lot of these classes before—I understood the ideology and history. But I’ve realized that I was arrogant. That my relationship and my classes had led me to believe that I knew everything I needed to. But what I’ve now come to realize is that I had failed to figure out what to do with this knowledge and experience. This course and what I’ve experienced with others here has helped me to take my prior knowledge of ideology and history and start to make sense of how to deal and what to do with it. (Christina, final presentation, December 2003)

In my wish to replicate these types of outcomes for others, I am aware of my desire to nail down the particular elements of the class that created this outcome for Christina. Was it the particular books we read? Was it the redrafting of her racial/class autobiography? Was it her service learning site? Alas, such a goal betrays my continuing need to remind myself of my pragmatic values and to practice putting them into action. Instead, thinking about this course from a pragmatic view convinces me of a central pragmatic tenet of teaching: the focus on the process of intelligent thinking engaged in a collective manner. Each different combination of persons in the class, each set of circumstances on campus—all contingencies—influence what the course can do and the kinds of work we can do together.


Banks, James. 2002. An Introduction to Multicultural Education (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Carter, Robert T. 2000. Reimagining Race in Education: A New Paradigm from Psychology. Teachers College Record, 102(5), 864–897.

Dewey, John. [1916] 1944. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Dewey, John. [1927] 1954. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Gouinlock, James. 1976. The Moral Writings of John Dewey. New York: Hafner.

Henry, Sue Ellen. 2001. What Happens When We Use Kohlberg: His Troubling Functionalism and the Potential of Pragmatism in Moral Education. Educational Theory, 51(3), 259–276.

Joas, Hans. 1993. Pragmatism and Social Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Milligan, Jeffrey Ayala. 1999. The Idolatry of Multicultural Education: Prophetic Pragmatic Alternative? Multicultural Education, 6(3), 2–5.

Simpson, Douglas, & Michael J. B. Jackson. 1997. Educational Reform: A Deweyan Perspective. New York: Garland.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 1992. Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom. Harvard Educational Review, 62(1), 1–24.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 1999. Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York: Basic Books.

Van Ausdale, Debra, & Joe Feagin. 2001. The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

SUE ELLEN HENRY is an assistant professor of education and has taught at Bucknell University for the past six years. Prior to teaching, she worked in university administration at Bucknell, the University of Vermont, the University of California at Davis, La Salle University, and the University of Virginia. Her research interests focus on moral and democratic education, inclusive pedagogical practices, and sociology of education. She is currently coediting a special issue of Educational Studies devoted to exploring the historical legacy and social outcomes of color blindness in educational settings. Her recent publications include ‘‘What Pragmatism Can Offer Educational Reform Debates: Method, Means, and Motive’’ (with Abe Feuerstein; International Journal of Educational Reform, Spring 2003) and ‘‘The Role of Reflection in Epistemological Change: Autobiography in Teacher Education’’ (with Mary Bushnell; Educational Studies, Spring 2003).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 5, 2005, p. 1060-1078
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11850, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 4:30:18 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review