Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society, Second Edition

reviewed by Moira Wilkinson - March 26, 2008

coverTitle: Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society, Second Edition
Author(s): James A. Banks
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807748129, Pages: 199, Year: 2007
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I have seen in my own public school teaching experience both the damaging effects of mainstream knowledge on students of color, and the liberating power of transformative knowledge that James Banks describes in Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society.  Racism is real, and Banks shows how it is imprinted not only on educational institutions themselves, but in the covert and overt ways mainstream curriculum and instruction enforce the mythic, idealized American Democracy. The traditional curriculum focuses on sanitized heroes of predominantly European heritage and promotes the accumulation of selected facts about this nation that are to form citizens’ perceptions of self and country. The systemic, pedagogical marginalization of people of color in the content and the institutions of education has an array of consequences—often brutal ones—not only for the way these students inhabit their citizenship, but also for the trajectory of their lives.

Not being reflected in the American meta-narrative promoted in the school environment may indeed be reflected in these groups’ higher levels of exit from school before graduation. The National Center for Education Statistics (2001) shows that the racial breakdown of “the percentage of 16-24 year olds who were drop outs in 2000 was 6.9 for whites, 13.1 for blacks, and 27.8 for Hispanics.” Once out of school and in mainstream society, according to a study done by Pettit and Western (2004), the rate of incarceration among low-skill black men, in particular, is so high—one in five of the men in their study had served time in prison before they were thirty—as to become “a new stage in the life course” for this set of males (p. 151). With such numbers, to deny that racism is a social epidemic in U.S. society is impossible. Even for the majority of all young people of color who complete high school, the group is less enfranchised than are their white counterparts. According to the Voting and Registration Data provided by the US Census (2000), only 64.4% of all blacks were reported to have voted, that number was 34.3% for Latinos, and 73.5% for whites. Given the visible racial and ethnic breakdown of schooling and socio-political experiences, Banks’ dual foci on group identity and pedagogy for active citizenship are instructive and crucial (though still insufficient) if the distance between lived experience and the ideal “American Democracy” is to be achieved.

It is true that members of what Banks calls “cultural” groups share many values, principles, and experiences unto themselves. And when members who share that cultural identification become the target of oppression precisely and only for their membership in that group, it is vital to examine the issue through a “group” lens. The cogency of Banks’ argument about the dominance of the meta-narrative with its insider and outsider identifications and the clarity of his writing are so seamless that the truly radical position he takes about how race is used to separate people from their rights begins to seem like the only and natural position. Curiously, and unfortunately, Banks’ model does not provide insight into how cultural groups whose membership is based on class status and gender category are also distanced from their rights.  

That aside, Banks skillfully speaks to multiple subjects at once, to compound effect. His ultimate goal is to affect teaching practice and learning experiences for students of color, and therefore, his first audience, presumably, is the public school teacher in her capacity as teacher. He forces her to think about what democracy is and how she needs to teach citizenship in the context of a democratic society whose vast resources are unevenly distributed and where privilege accumulates where resources accumulate. By doing so, however, he engages the teacher in her subjectivity as student as well, requiring her to examine the underlying ideology of the curriculum that she teaches, as well as the one she was exposed to as a young student.  

For the students in my “Teaching Social Studies” classes, this experience has been an example of how transformative alternative knowledge can be. Like Banks’ own students, my teacher education students are mostly women. Unlike his students, because I teach in a public university in the city of New York, the women in my classes are predominantly females of color from working class backgrounds, some of whom are immigrants. Often, what they read in my class is their first formal exposure to something other than mainstream knowledge. By using authors like Banks, Ladson-Billings, Delpit, Lowen, and Zinn to name a few, what students read speaks directly to how identity politics are infused into the curriculum, and how that invisible agenda has served to shape their own citizenship. Time and again, this reinterpretation of their own experience has enabled them to be better teachers to their own students. Banks’ aptitude to speak to his readers in both their capacity as teacher and student at the same time has a multiplying, intergenerational effect.  

Because his voice is so authoritative in the field, there is a danger that his will also be the definitive voice. It should not be. There are omissions here that need to be considered in order to genuinely move toward a fuller democracy. Banks’ argument hinges on the related concepts of identity, affiliation, and privilege. And, while it is problematic on one level that he leaves whole cultural groups out, he also overstates the role of group in two ways that weaken the analysis and the resulting pedagogical appeal. First, by using the group as the lowest unit of analysis, he masks important differences among members of that group, again intersecting with class and gender. Second, Banks also undermines the power of the individual by reverting only to group status.  

He draws on Cherry McGee Banks to describe “[t]he serious limitations of the mainstream metanarrative.” She says, “by telling part of the story and leaving other parts of the story out, metanarratives suggest not only that some parts of the story don’t count, but that some parts don’t even exist” (McGee Banks, cited in Banks, 2007, p. 29). In James Banks’ interpretation, however, he reproduces this limitation when he reduces this powerful heuristic to a single axis of power—that is, a story with two sides—instead of the matrix that it is. In reality, the meta-narrative in the U.S. is not only white, but white and suburban, protestant; born-in-the-US; male; middle class; heterosexual (married); and middle-aged, etc. Each of these markers represents another story, and another way in which individuals are socialized toward or away from their entitlement to their rights. Further, one’s identity is dynamic rather than static, and changes subtly depending on the environment one is in and with whom they share that space (Alvarez, 1998). Classism and sexism are also real and devastating for the populations targeted by those oppressions, and these two are important joists in upholding racism. That is, one’s gender and one’s class status will affect one’s experience with racism.  

Incorporating these pieces may well complicate a person’s ability to make the contingent and concentric identifications Banks suggests are key to citizenship: cultural, national, then global.  That messiness may be necessary, however. Indeed, the fact that Banks’ position is organized around the reality of inequitable distribution (and claiming) of symbolic and material resources in the U.S. implies a thick discussion of class. One cannot invoke concepts of distribution, privilege and accumulation, which are the bedrock of capitalism, without also taking aim at the effects of that system of stratification as well. Here, group affiliation masks very important differences among citizens. By excluding those structures from his discussion, Banks does a disservice to all young female students, and all of those students in conditions of material poverty. Incorporating more of these stacked identities into the discussion of citizenship would enrich both the way educators conceive of democracy and the range of instruments to be included in the citizenship teacher’s toolbox. At the same time, Banks’ use of the cultural “group” undermines another goal of this book, which is to protect or restore a young person’s sense of her or his own power. By overwriting the individual experience with that of the collective, he minimizes young peoples’ understanding of their own significance and thus inhibits the development of their own agency. These two elements are pivotal to strengthening a young person’s positive sense of self, which in turn enables the empathy requisite for the dynamic “cultural-national-global” model of expanding identifications that buttress the active citizenship he advocates.  


Alvarez, S. (Ed.). (1998). Cultures of politics, politics of cultures: Re-visioning Latin American social movements. Boulder: Westview Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2001).  Table A, Percentage of 15- through 24-year-olds who dropped out of grades 10-12 in the past year, percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who were dropouts, and percentage of 18- through 24-year-olds who had completed high school, by race/ethnicity. Retrieved February 3, 2008, from

Pettit, B. & Western, B. (2004). Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in U.S. incarceration.  American Sociological Review, 69(2), 151-169.

US Census Bureau. (2000). Voting and Registration: Current population survey; nation and state. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 26, 2008 ID Number: 15172, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 10:35:10 AM

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