Social Education 57(7), 1993, pp. 356-358
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Where Will These Guidelines Take Us?
Much could be said about the guidelines that have been adopted by NCSS, but I will limit my comments to three very basic issues: (1) the concept of cultural relativism; (2) an anti-Western bias; and (3) the premise of the value of diversity.
To my knowledge, the term cultural relativism is not used in the guidelines, but the concept is prevalent throughout the document. The concept is not new, and was expressed in modern times by romanticists such as the German Johann Gottfried Herder in the eighteenth century. Herder maintained that no culture is better than any other, only different, and that those differences should be celebrated. He posited that each culture could be judged only by its unique standards, but he, and other cultural relativists never clearly defined what those unique standards were. The concept of cultural relativism runs throughout the NCSS guidelines and is evident by the demand for what appears to be unqualified respect for differing cultural values at the individual, group, and societal levels. Nowhere in the guidelines is any limit set to the respect that must be given.
Inherent within cultural relativism, however, is a seemingly inescapable contradiction because it has trapped all who have espoused it. Those very people who preach acceptance of differing cultural values invariably end up heavily criticizing a particular cultural (usuallly Western culture); they cannot accept it on its own terms, which is contrary to the position they have taken respecting differing cultural values.
At the same time the guidelines espouse this relativist position, they also mention "overarching values-such as equality, justice, and human dignity" (276), and "at the the same time, members of ethnic groups have both the right and the responsibility to accept U.S democratic values" (277). This appears to be an absolutist's position, a belief that is antiethical to relativism. You cannot hold and defend two antithetical positions simultaneously (at least not within what is considered normal reasoning). The only escape from this position is to say that these overarching values apply only to our culture, and therefore there are limits to the acceptance given various subcultures. However, nowhere is this stated in the guidelines, nor is it a satisfactory escape because it would require a position that says that equality, justice, and human dignity are not values that should be universally applicable to all human beings.
It is an extremely simplistic and irreconcilable position to say we respect all values and believe in "overarching values." If I truly believe in these overarching values of equality, justice, and human dignity, or if I truly believe that "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," how then can I teach students to respect a culture where a caste system relegates certain individuals to a pathetic existence as an untouchable? How then can I teach students unqualified respect of a culture where female babies are viewed as of so little value that infanticide is regularly practiced? How then can I teach students unqualified respect of a non-Western culture where racism is deeply embedded in the values of the culture? Apparently in the desire to offend no ethnic or cultural group, NCSS has adopted two contradictory positions and a position that no judgment should be made (except against countries of the West). Is it possible that some cultures and their values may not be respectable? You cannot stand for something and respect everything.
The guidelines further exhibit this problem by what they do not address. One of the representative goals states that "schools should create total school environments that are consistent with democratic ideals and cultural diversity." What should be done when the cultural diversity represented runs in direct contradiction to the democratic ideals? The guidelines provide no guidance on or even the suggestion that some cultural groups may have to change their values for functioning in a democratic society, because many cultures and cultural groups are not democratic or do not subscribe to these "overarching values." One must assume that asking them to change would be tantamount to disapproval.
Cultural Relativism and the Multicultural Education Movement
The second basic issue is intertwined with the inherent problems with cultural relativism and how it has manifested itself in the multicultural education movement. The guidelines present contradictory statements on encouraging respect for all cultures and the biased treatment given Western Civilization. The guidelines are careful in giving directions not to offend other cultures, but express no such concern for the West. Two statements illustrate this graphically:
The multiculturalists also believe that the conflict inherent in the West's commitment to democratic ideals and the racism and sexism still practiced in Western societies should be made explicit in the curriculum. (276)
The West should also be described in ways that accurately describe the gap between its democratic ideals and realities. Western civilization is characterized by ideals such as democracy and freedom but also by struggle, conflict, and deferred and shattered dreams. (279)
I do not object to a realistic portrayal of the West, but should not other cultures be subject to the same scrutiny? Nowhere in the guidelines are suggestions that such evaluations should be made of other cultures, only respect. This relegates equality, justice, and human dignity to a strictly Western value system, a relativist position. To judge the West by only these ideals, however, is to fail to consider all of the other contradictory values that have made Western Civilization what it is. A relativist position must accept Western Civilization for what it is with no judgment. Only by making these values absolute does judgment become appropriate. If these values are absolute, intellectual honesty demands that all cultures should be so judged, not just the West. Again, this is the contradiction inherent with cultural relativism and these guidelines.
Underlying Premises of Multicultural Education
The third issue is an underlying premise on which multicultural education is founded. Many have hastily accepted the premise in the guidelines that "ethnic and cultural diversity provides a basis for societal enrichment, cohesiveness, and survivaquot; (276). In these guidelines unity is mentioned little, and diversity a lot. Undoubtedly, our diversity is increasing, but to say that this is a strength or the basis for cohesiveness is quite unproven, and simply saying it does not make it so.
I have heard much rhetoric about this premise, but I, and many others I know, remain skeptical because historically diversity such as we are experiencing, and as some are encouraging, has generally had the opposite results. I have not been shown historical examples to establish this premise, but historical examples abound that show that celebrating ethnicity encourages the forces of the far right. Whether education can change historical patterns of the effects of celebrating ethnicity within a society remains to be seen. Going down a road simply because it is in front of us does not mean that we will get to where we want to go. In fact, that road may lead in a very different direction, and simply stating and assuming that it will get us to our desired destination is reckless. It is not a reasoned position established by logic, evidence, and history; it is an ideological position. Building any program on a strictly ideological and hastily-accepted premise is dangerous, particularly when evidence in support of that premise is questionable and when history is replete with evidence to the contrary.
In summary, numerous contradictory, simplistic, and biased positions appear within the multicultural education guidelines. They do not give adequate consideration to a number of issues about cultural relativism and absolutes, the limits of accepting certain cultural values, and what constitutes and builds unity. Unless NCSS adequately addresses these issues, the confusion or rejection of the multicultural education positions will continue.
If people misunderstand multicultural education or perceive it to be under attack as Ladson-Billings maintains, one needs to look no further than her article to see why the multicultural education movement has no credibility in many circles. The article presents numerous weak positions, but I will mention just one glaring example. While lauding diversity and evidently attempting to defend the premise that diversity is positive, builds strength and unity, Ladson-Billings states:
Those who object to this multiplicity of perspective and claim to fear balkanization and fragmentation have short historical memories. They forget that cultural homogeneity is no guarantee against divisiveness. One look around the world illustrates this point. Is there a united Arab world? Are the Germans, who fought for unification for the past forty years, coming to believe that shared history, culture, and language do not necessarily ensure unity[?]...The converse is also true. Cultural differences do not necessarily result in a lack of unity. Once again, the world provides illustrations. Europe, with all of its diversity-language, culture, history-is composed of countries that exist along-side each other with relatively stable and peaceful relations. (308)
Unfortunately for the author, there are multiple reasoning flaws in the argument and these examples do not provide even the slightest support for her position, and in fact, they militate against her position. Does a united Arab world exist? Sometimes it does, but that is immaterial because the Arab world is not homogeneous, being divided along religious, as well as political, ethnic, and historical lines. I don't know what the Germans are coming to believe, but to suggest that they are homogeneous is to ignore the past four and one-half decades. Germans of the East and West no longer have a shared history or culture. In fact, they are poles apart because of the communist culture of the East of the past forty-five years. In each case that is cited, it is the diversity that has prevented unity.
In the second paragraph it is a weak, if not wholly inappropriate, analogy to use an entire geographical region and separate political entities (the countries of Europe) to build a case for encouraging multicultural diversity within a single political entity. Even ignoring this breakdown in reasoning, to say that Europe is an example of diverse countries getting along through history is absurd. With the common heritage of Western Civilization religious, political, and economic wars have raged for hundreds of years in Europe both between and within countries. In this century the world fought two world wars because of Europe's political, economic, and cultural differences. The United States has had hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Europe to help maintain stability because of the clash of two diverse value systems, capitalism and communism. Yugoslavia and the Balkans are part of Europe, and that cultural struggle has been going on for hundreds of years, with no end in sight. It is such reasoning, evidence, and weak scholarship that has caused many to challenge the direction multicultural education has taken.
The Idols of the Mind
It may be akin to sacrilege to apply a concept articulated by Sir Francis Bacon (a very dead, white, European male) to the multicultural education movement, but the idea came to me while reading a an article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Social Education, 1992) in a section on African-American history in which the author derided Bacon (hardly a respectful thing to do to one of another culture). Nonetheless, his ideas have greatly influenced Western Civilization, and therefore the world, so I will use them. Bacon's ideas were revolutionary when examined against the authoritative truth of his day. The four prejudices he calls the Idols of the Mind are an exposé of human nature and thought, and describe how we allow our biases to interfere with our reasoning and the pursuit of true knowledge. Indeed, sound scholarship involves the continuous effort for all of us to free ourselves from the Idols of the Mind, for none of us, liberal or conservative, right or left, are immune from these idols.
Apart from the inherent contradictions and bias in the guidelines perhaps two of Bacon's corollary ideas from the Idols of the Mind in Novum Organum and The Great Instauration might demonstrate why multicultural education is facing an "onslaught of derogation and denunciation from a variety of academic and political arenas," as Ladson-Billings states. First, Bacon wrote that people hastily accepted "the first notices of things" (The Great Instauration 1), drew forever on those conclusions, which led to errors that continued and remained uncorrected. Such knowledge represented a magnificent structure that had no foundation. In Bacon's words: "Now if the first notions...are hastily abstracted from things...the whole structure falls to the ground" (12).
We could make a strong case that the current educational system is based on premises that are no longer true, if indeed, they ever were. What we may be seeing currently is where "the whole structure falls to the ground" (12). I believe that we must develop new premises on which to base our educational system and to cope with the changing nature of society in the United States. However, Bacon warned of a method that hurries rapidly to the most general axioms and principles, and from these indisputable truths to the derivation of the intermediate axioms. In this context consider the highly questionable premise from the NCSS guidelines and the potential consequences of attempting to build on it.
A second related idea from Bacon pertains to the use of facts once an individual accepts a proposition: "The human understanding, when any proposition has been once laid down...forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation; and although most cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet either does not observe or despises them, or gets rid of and rejects them" (Novum Organum 110). In this context read again Ladson-Billings's use of historical examples to bolster an accepted proposition.
I have referred only to two articles on multicultural education, however, my observations are that they are indicative of the level of arguments put forth by the multiculturalists. In fact, because NCSS has adopted these guidelines, one must assume that the guidelines represent the best and strongest of the multicultural positions and arguments. The criticisms of multicultural education do not come just from the far right, but rather from many thoughtful individuals of all persuasions who are not satisfied with the quality of scholarship, reasoning, and evidence put forth by its proponents. Obviously, the standards I have used to evaluate the arguments are from Western culture, and by these standards, the arguments are far from convincing.
We have little choice but to view multicultural education as a political movement directed by an inflexible ideology (the Idol of the Theatre) in which its proponents have not dealt adequately and in a rational and scholarly manner with the arguments of its critics. I am dismayed, but not surprised, that NCSS has adopted a position that is clearly dictated by political considerations for a specific group of people, and not because of the weight of the arguments and scholarship. There is a reason for the onslaught of derogation and denunciation, and it is not all due to racism or "multicultural illiterates" (Ladson-Billings 309). These are real issues for people and too much is at stake to allow weak evidence or an ideology to carry the argument. Multiculturalists must consider that the critics may very well be correct because the Idols of the Mind are very powerful for all of us. If the critics are correct, the price we will pay as a nation for celebrating ethnicity will indeed be high, so let us be sure.
The section on Goals for School Reform of the guidelines states:
The pluralist dilemma related to the curriculum canon debate can only be resolved when all groups involved-the Western traditionalists, the Afrocentrists, and the multiculturalists-share power and engage in genuine dialogue and discussion. Power sharing is a requisite to genuine debate and conflict. (279)
It is unfortunate and ironic NCSS should produce such a statement without heeding its own advice. I am left to conclude that it is another contradictory position, or that the concepts are not applicable to professional organizations, because apparently the guidelines were written by a very select few and accepted by NCSS with little or no dialogue and discussion. NCSS should heed the words of René Descartes (1991, 266) in the Discourse on Method:It must always be recollected, however, that possibly I deceive myself, and that what I take to be gold and diamonds is perhaps no more than copper and glass. I know how subject we are to delusion in whatever touches ourselves, and also how much the judgments of our friends ought to be suspected when they are in our favor.