Saturday, May 22, 2004

Who’s right about multiculturalism — Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who unapologetically terms it “bunk,” or his critics who accuse him of bashing immigrants?

It depends on how multiculturalism is practiced in the classroom. Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric at Towson University, made a cogent point when he told the Baltimore Sun, “People support it, without knowing what it means.”

Many supporters believe it means celebrating cultural differences within an otherwise united nation. It’s Cinco de Mayo festivities and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Unfortunately, the brand of multiculturalism widely practiced in American education is divisive and separatist. It rejects assimilation. It despises the idea of a common culture.

There is nothing diverse about encouraging immigrants to cling to their own language, culture, customs and history to the exclusion of learning the heritage and language of their adopted land. Conversely, there is nothing anti-immigrant about denouncing the brand of multiculturalism that joins bilingual education to encourage linguistic and cultural separatism.

A century ago, public education served the vital purpose of assimilating waves of immigrant children into a united nation. Today it is dangerously close to forfeiting that historic mission.

Just look at the leading organization of multicultural educators from the kindergarten through graduate school levels: the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME). At annual conventions over the past decade, NAME activists consistently praised minority or Third World cultures and asserted the very idea of an inclusive American common culture rooted in Western values perpetuates European oppression and exploitation of supposedly purer cultures.

NAME workshops frequently classify students as members of “oppressor” or “oppressed” groups, according to their race and sex. That’s the epitome of racist stereotyping.

During a recent discussion of ways to deconstruct whiteness, NAME educators cast blanket blame on whites for “psychological violence” that instills in children of color a desire to attain the norms of the “dominant white culture.”

The relentless drumbeat of radical multiculturalism has had a devastating effect on the core curriculum at leading institutions of higher learning, including the University of Maryland. A 1999 Calvert Institute study lamented that a traditional fine arts requirement at College Park could be satisfied with “Gender and Performance,” among other soft multicultural offerings.

The authors, Rockville-based statisticians Robert Lerner and Althea K. Nagai, used a methodology known as “content analysis coding” to demonstrate an almost complete abandonment of liberal arts requirements at Maryland public universities in favor of politically motivated multicultural fare.

The same tendency is apparent in elementary and secondary schools across the nation.

For example, Chicago Public Schools have a curriculum prepared exclusively for Mexican-American children in bilingual education. CPS’ Office of Language and Cultural Education gives teachers a 163-page “Mexican Heritage Guide” to teach these children Mexican history sequentially “so that the lessons will not be taught in isolation.”

But that is exactly how U.S. history is taught in Chicago and throughout Illinois — facts in isolation — according to an expert analysis. Grading history standards of 48 states for the Fordham Foundation, Sheldon Stern, historian at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, found Illinois’ “an incoherent mishmash,” lacking chronological guidance or perspective.

By contrast, the Mexican Heritage Guide offers not only timelines and extensive discussion of the waves of civilization in Mexican history but numerous classroom activities to underscore the history lessons. The multiculturalists want much time invested in this project learning: 30 minutes to make an Aztec headdress, two 50-minute periods to make pottery in the ancient Mexican style, and almost a week to put on a play on pagan legends about the origin of the sun and moon.

Such activities devour much precious instructional time in classes where children are supposed to learn English promptly so they can succeed in their studies. Instead, they often are taught entirely in Spanish, with lessons that ensure they will know far more about Miguel Hidalgo than Thomas Jefferson.

Is this kind of multiculturalism benign or is it bunk? It depends on how much one believes in the ideal of public education as a unifying force.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va. His recent study, “A Primer on Multicultural Education: Unifying or Divisive Force?,” is available at

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