Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 283-286
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Some influential historians and educators, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of the City University of New York and Diane Ravitch, an Undersecretary of Education in the Bush administration, charge that in the name of multiculturalism, ethnocentric "particularists" are undermining our national culture, sacrificing "unum" in the name of "pluribus." They accuse many multiculturalists of "ethnic cheerleading" and of promoting "social and psychological therapy" instead of teaching history (Ravitch and Schlesinger 1990, 15). I believe that Schlesinger, Ravitch, and their allies take this position because of their political and ideological commitments; they do not recognize and openly examine their own ideas seriously and this weakens their scholarship.
Meanwhile, on many college campuses and in many African-American communities in the United States, people will challenge my credentials because I am a white man and a Jew. They question whether I am capable of seeing other perspectives and of understanding and sensitively teaching about African and African-American experiences (Clarke 1991, 76; Asante 1990, 7). They quote authors like Dr. Yusef Ben-Jochannan (1991), who argues that white educators have tried to influence black and African studies curricula as part of a campaign of "cultural genocide" against African peoples.
I think Ben-Jochannan and his supporters are wrong about the ability of non-African scholars to carry out research on and teach about African peoples, but I do not believe I could ever prove it to them. It is not that they disagree about the quality of my research and my teaching; they dismiss them as irrelevant because their movement has a different ideological framework and goals. I am convinced that when this group discusses history, it is not doing or discussing the same things that the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, or National Council for the Social Studies are examining.1
Afrocentricity in its various formulations has stimulated my interest in and study of Africans and African Americans. I thank advocates of Afrocentricity for forcing me to examine ideas that I may well have otherwise ignored. Although I recognize its contributions to historical debate, Afrocentrism is not a study of history or an approach to historical understanding. It is a political and religious movement that uses historical information for the creation of unifying cultural symbols.
According to Molefi Kete Asante (1988, 19-30), chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University and an acknowledged representative of the Afrocentrism movement, the goals of Afrocentricity are "reconstructing culture" and "creating collective consciousness" among African Americans. Asante (1988, 80) is interested in the past and uses it to bolster his philosophical constructions, but he rejects "the religion of science," and with it the systematic study of history, because it "becomes materialistic" and does not embrace his "humanistic and spiritual viewpoint." Asante is skeptical about the value of my knowledge of "specific phenomena" and since I am not, and cannot be, part of his ethnicity-based spiritual community, he does not believe we can share common values (Marable 1990, 14-15). As a white academic and teacher, what I have to say is irrelevant in his system of ideas.
I want to stress that I believe that Asante and his supporters, and Schlesinger and Ravitch and their supporters for that matter, have every right to do what they are doing. Culture is a dynamic and changing force that is reshaped through experiences generated in political struggles. The Afrocentrists, however, are not studying or writing history.
Because Afrocentrists have been concerned with uncovering and disseminating accurate information about the contributions of Africans, African Americans, and other peoples who have been excluded in our school curricula, they have often worked in coalition with historians and multiculturalists for curriculum reform. But Afrocentrism and multiculturalism are not the same thing.
Multiculturalism is a way of looking at our world. Its roots are in rationalism and scientific exploration; it challenges the cultural limitations that distort our vision and calls for inclusive, accurate, and reflective historical research and teaching. It is a "perspective in the making." Some of its principles are broadly held by people who identify as multiculturalists, whereas other principles are continually debated.
Multiculturalism is based on the idea of multiple perspectives-that it is possible to view and understand an event or an era in more than one way. Did the European Age of Exploration unleash waves of progress and prosperity? For some people, the answer is yes. But not if you were a Taino, a Yoruba, a Malay, or a European peasant.
Differences in perspective can also be more subtle. For example, most U.S. slave narratives were published by abolitionists in the 1850s who used them to illustrate the horror, irrationality, and inhumanity of human bondage. As morality plays designed to outrage the reader, historians generally cannot rely on them to shed light on the experience of enslaved African Americans or the motives and culture of Southern white slave owners. Solomon Northup's narrative, Twelve Years a Slave (1968), however, provides an unusual account of slavery that underscores the importance of searching out and examining other perspectives.
Solomon Northup was a free black, a skilled carpenter and accomplished musician, living in northern New York State with his family when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northup brings the insights of a free man, a literate man, and a skilled worker to his discussion of slavery, slave community, and work on the plantation. As you read his book, you empathize with Northup and you identify with him. You understand what he is experiencing because it could be you. Slavery in the United States takes on new meaning.
Multiculturalism, like Afrocentrism, is a call for inclusion and more. Multiculturalism says "I should be in this U.S. history book, but so should you, and so should the other groups that participated in building this nation."
Students must know where their ancestors fit in the picture. Multiculturalism can generate a sense of pride and engage students in the study of the past. But it is also important to know how Irish canal builders, white Protestant New England women mill workers, Chinese railway construction crews, Jewish garment workers, and enslaved black agricultural workers made possible the industrial development of the United States. Multiculturalism allows students and teachers to explore the similarities and differences in human experience. It shows the broad range of human contributions to historical development. Multiculturalism is not "feel-good" history; it is an expanded picture of the social history of this country.
Multiculturalism also insists that we see the world in all of its global complexity. Billions of actors occupy the world stage and a viewpoint that ignores most of them leaves us unable to understand the forces that shape our planet. For example, the United States alone cannot solve environmental problems or ignore the needs of people in other countries and regions of the world.
Examining global complexity is not pertinent only when we discuss the contemporary world. New histories emphasize that the Nile Valley was a crossroads where diverse cultures met, interacted, and created new cultures. The Seeds of Change exhibit, organized by the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, explores the cultural exchanges that followed the Columbian Encounter of 1492 and the ways they reshaped the lives of peoples in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Before students can understand the U.S. war in Vietnam, they need to examine the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the competition between the United States, Japan, and European nations for economic influence in Southeast Asia, and the deep-seated nationalistic aspirations of the Vietnamese people.
Viewed within this context, a multicultural perspective requires dialogue between people with various points of view, acknowledges different experiences, and respects diverse opinions. It creates space for alternative voices, not just on the periphery, but in the center. Multiculturalism values creating knowledge through research, analysis, and discussion. It rejects the idea that everyone must accept only one possible answer and recognizes that what people believe to be true is constantly changing. These are some of the reasons I object to the attacks launched by Schlesinger and Ravitch in works like Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America (1992) and Ravitch's "Viewpoints: History and the Perils of Pride" (1991) and "Multiculturalism Yes, Particularism No" (1990c). They were written to discredit the opposition, not to examine ideas or to open up discussion.
Asante argues that people must be seen as central to their own histories (1991, 46). As a historian, I agree with the importance of this idea. African history does not begin with the Atlantic slave trade. Jews existed between the times of Christ and Hitler. Native American civilizations flourished before Europeans arrived. Egypt did not disappear when Cleopatra died.
We need to know where the lives of various peoples intersect on the world stage. But unless we also understand how these groups of people developed, how they perceived themselves, and how they lived before and after the points of intersection, we cannot understand their roles and contributions to human history.
Historians and teachers share responsibility for the confusion between what Afrocentrists do and the study of history. We have often taught history as a collection of isolated and seemingly random facts to be memorized. The Afrocentrists respond: "Why your facts and not mine?"
If we want our students to understand the differences between multicultural history and Afrocentrism, we must change the way we teach. Our students must learn to examine the past as historians. We must teach them to frame and evaluate hypotheses about why things happen and why nations behave in certain ways.
Schlesinger (1992, 17) has launched his campaign against multiculturalism out of concern for the U.S. identity as a nation. He is afraid of the influence of "proposals to divide the United States into distinct and immutable ethnic and racial communities, each taught to cherish its own apartness from the rest." I would argue that Schlesinger is not responding to a situation created by calls for multiculturalism, but by the absence of respect for multiculturalism in our society and school curricula.
A key precept for a multicultural education should be respect for the richness of difference. This is a crucial value for the survival of a diverse and democratic society and a fundamental component of how we learn. Learning in general, and learning and developing a sense of self-identity in particular, are part of a process of comparing similarities and differences. We become conscious of who we are and what we are as we compare ourselves with others. Without differences, identity has no meaning.
In the United States, an expressed goal of education is to create an active citizenry committed to democratic values. The kind of multicultural approach I have described supports that goal. By involving students in historical exploration, it promotes an understanding of how societies change and prepares students to serve as agents of change.
Multiculturalism also addresses the dynamic nature of culture. It exposes students to a broad range of possibilities and enhances the likelihood of conscious cultural choices. Its focus on similarities and differences and multiple perspectives will ultimately make possible a national culture in the United States that is more integrated than is now the case.
When I explain this conception of multiculturalism to groups of teachers, they generally respond that it seems reasonable and do not understand why it has generated such intense controversy.
The reason for the controversy may be that most of the debate about multiculturalism has little to do with the nature of history or the most effective ways to teach it. They are, rather, political debates about who will hold power and shape educational policies in U.S. society. The Afrocentrists have a political agenda and so do the Schlesingers and Ravitches.
Nothing is inherently wrong with historians being politically active. To the contrary, it undoubtedly elevates the quality of political debate. Given the nature of our profession, in fact, I would argue that historians are always political. Political ideology informs the topics we choose to examine and the theoretical frameworks we apply. We do, however, need to make distinctions between our political preferences and our professional historical judgments. We must insist that historians reflect on their assumptions and goals and evaluate our standards for knowing.
One of my disagreements with the Afrocentrists is that their political efforts to develop an Afrocentric culture among black people in the United States has a tendency to amalgamate the independent histories of African peoples and distort our understanding of the history of African Americans. Africa is a continental landmass, not a country, an ethnicity, or a culture. In fact, the continent encompasses hundreds of cultures and peoples with different languages, values, and ways of living. Slaveholders stole distinct heritages from Africa, but the heritages continue to exist in the nations of the African continent.
Partly as a result of the destruction of those heritages in the American continents, the African-American experience is thoroughly interwoven into the history of the United States. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate American cultures and determine which parts belong exclusively to black people, which parts were shaped only by whites, and which parts are important only to Native Americans or Latinos.
At a 1956 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, African-American activist Paul Robeson was asked why he did not stay in Russia. Robeson (Robeson 1981, 105) boldly responded:
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
Schlesinger (1992, 79-80) and Ravitch's (Ravitch and Schlesinger 1990, 5; Ravitch 1990b, 1) politics are insidious because they claim they have no politics other than the defense of the "American creed" and the development of accurate and unbiased history curriculum. They charge that pseudo-multiculturalists are promoting myth as fact. My reviews of their work, however, show that they also include unexamined assumptions and their own preferred historical "myths" (Singer 1991; forthcoming).
Schlesinger (1992, 112) believes that a basic U.S. consensus underpins our democratic community and charges that
the cult of ethnicity has reversed the movement of American history, producing a nation of minorities-or at least minority spokesmen-less interested in joining with the majority in common endeavor than in declaring their alienation from oppressive, white patriarchical, racist, sexist classist society.
What does Schlesinger's American consensus look like? What was its position on slavery? On the exploitation of European and Asian immigrant labor? On the destruction of the Native American? On the marginalization of women? How fragile is this consensus if "minority spokesmen" can so easily reverse it? A multicultural U.S. history curriculum would explore these questions. We need to examine the idea of a consensus, not assume it.
Ravitch (1990c) identifies herself as a "cultural pluralist" committed to multicultural education but opposed to the "particularism" of cultural nationalists. I find her work a "particularistic" celebration of one point of view about the United States, not an exploration, an explanation, or a historical interpretation. Her book The American Reader (1990a, 3) begins with the following statement: "The settling of America began with an idea. The idea was that the citizens of a society could join freely and agree to govern themselves by making laws for the common good." According to Ravitch, the idea was embedded in the Mayflower Compact and came to the New World on November 11, 1620.
Did the United States really begin in 1620? What about 1619, the year that enslaved Africans were first sold in Virginia? Or 1607, when Jamestown was founded? Or 1565, when the Spanish settled Saint Augustine? Or 1492? Or 50,000-20,000 b.c., approximate dates for the Native American migration from the Eurasian continent across the land bridge to North and South America? Did the United States begin with only one idea? Ravitch's claims are not unbiased statements of historical fact. They are opinions that a multicultural U.S. history curriculum must investigate.
It is not enough to say that historians and teachers should consider adopting a multicultural perspective. We pay a social cost in rejecting multiculturalism and maintaining our current history curricula. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1992), has argued that educated Afrocentrists who are competing for leadership in African-American communities are largely responsible for an upsurge of anti-Semitism in black communities. I agree with Gates's antagonism to anti-Semitism and many of his explanations for why Jews are stereotyped in the United States; I also respect him for challenging isolationism and demagoguery. Nevertheless, I view the problem somewhat differently from the way he has addressed it.
Gates's focus is on the role of the black intelligentsia. I see contemporary black anti-Semitism as a manifestation of a broader phenomenon rooted in the inequality and injustice of U.S. society. The appeal of anti-Semitism, Afrocentrism, Sister Souljah, and Ice-T is a product of poverty, discrimination, and the ghetto experience of millions of young black people. The black intelligentsia is not buying thousands of "X" caps. They are being worn by young blacks, mostly males, who are saying, "I'm fired up, won't take no more." This difference in focus is significant because Schlesinger and Ravitch and others who are challenging multiculturalism and Afrocentrism appear to miss the discontent and the longing that lie behind the rhetoric, the violent rap music, and the search for African roots. These are symptoms, not causes, of social unrest.
Afrocentrics like Asante, Ben-Jochannon, and Leonard Jeffries and John Henrik Clarke of the City University of New York function as ethnic politicians, not historians. They have followings because their Afrocentric message appeals to people's sense of loss and hopelessness. If historians and educators want to respond to what we believe are historical inadequacies or misrepresentations, our professions must also address what is happening in our society, the growing racial divisions and economic gulf between social classes, and the increasing disaffection of our youth. Otherwise, our silence on these issues discredits our calls for reason and historical scholarship.
Multicultural education cannot solve our country's problems. By embracing a multicultural perspective, however, historians and teachers are making a statement that we take the divisions in U.S. society seriously and we are committed to bridging them.
One last point. The politics of Schlesinger, Ravitch, and their conservative supporters concern me more than the Afrocentrists. Schlesinger and Ravitch are in a position to make changes in our society. Instead, they are fighting to maintain the social, educational, and historical status quo. Their expressed concern that multiculturalism will undermine historical and educational standards is a political sham. On July 26, 1992, the New York Times discussed Gallup poll surveys of beliefs held by Americans. According to these surveys (Cronin 1992):
1Professor Joan Wallach Scott (1992, 74-75) of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University comments on the tendency for "personal testimony of oppression" to replace "analysis and explanation and it comes to stand for the experience of the group" ("The Campaign against Political Correctness: What's Really at Stake?", Radical History Review [Fall 1992]: 59-79). The fact of belonging to an identity group is taken as authority enough for one's speech; the direct experience of a group or culture-that is, membership in it-becomes the only test of true knowledge.References
Asante, Molefi Kete. Afrocentricity. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1988._____. Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990._____. "Putting Africa at the Center." Newsweek (23 September 1991): 46.Ben-Jochannan, Yusef. Cultural Genocide in the Black and African Studies Curriculum. New York: ECA Associates, 1991.Clarke, John Henrik. Notes for the African World Revolution. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1991.Cronin, Anne. "This Is Your Life, Generally Speaking." New York Times, Section 4, 26 July 1992.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars." New York Times, 20 July 1992.Marable, Manning. "Eurocentrism vs. Afrocentrism: the Impasse of Racial Politics-A Review of The Afrocentric Idea by Molefi Asante." Democratic Left (May/June 1990): 14-15.Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Edited by S. Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.Ravitch, Diane. The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 1990a._____. "Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures." Key Reporter (Autumn 1990b): 1._____. "Multiculturalism Yes, Particularism No." Chronicle of Higher Education (24 October 1990c): 44._____. "Viewpoints: History and the Perils of Pride." American Historical Association Perspectives (March 1991): 12-13.Ravitch, Diane, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. "Viewpoints: Statement of the Committee of Scholars in Defense of History." American Historical Association Perspectives (October 1990): 15.Robeson, Susan. The Whole World in His Hands. New York: Citadel, 1981.Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton, 1992.Singer, Alan. "Review: The American Reader by Diane Ravitch." OAH Magazine of History (Summer 1991): 55-57._____. "Review: The Disuniting of America by Arthur Schlesinger." Forthcoming.Alan Singer is Assistant Professor of Education in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York 11550. He is also a social studies teacher at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, New York 11230.