Catherine Cornbleth and Dexter Waugh. 1995. New York: St. Martin's Press, 209 pages. ISBN 0-312-10824-9.
Reviewed by Michael Whelan.
The Great Speckled Bird: Multicultural Politics and Education Policymaking is an often insightful book whose central theme is marred by the contentious rhetoric so typical of current discussions about multiculturalism in schools. This rhetorical tone is unfortunate for I suspect that, as a result, the book will simply serve to harden positions already too rigid on both sides of this critical set of issues.
Readers sympathetic to the authors' points of view will likely feel encouraged by the book's argumentation and analysis, while those wary of, or resistant to, multiculturalism (however defined) will just as likely feel even more defensive. That is unfortunate, for a less strident and starkly dualistic tone might well have been more conducive to reform, especially the sort of reform the authors urge. Nonetheless, the book deals with important issues in an informed-if at times provocative and poorly balanced-manner, and should be read by anyone involved in or interested in social studies education.
Authors Catherine Cornbleth, a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Dexter Waugh, a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner, describe two recent efforts at state-wide curriculum reform in social studies: the 1987 California framework and subsequent textbook adoption process, and the newly released Regents' action plan in New York. The case study approach adds a lively sense of drama to the book, particularly in the chapters about New York. Cornbleth's "insider" perspective as a member of two advisory committees in the drawn-out proceedings there makes for a genuinely engaging narrative (something rather rare among books about educational policy). The "outsider," journalistic style of the chapters about California is more detached, but no less perceptive.
The book's most important chapter, Chapter 2, is not about either case study, however. It is an explication of the authors' theoretical frames of reference. First, Cornbleth and Waugh identify their basic analytical position as that of "critical pragmatism." This, they explain, is a philosophic tradition which can be traced in the United States from William James and W. E. B. DuBois to Richard Rorty and Cornel West. The separate strands of the tradition, they further explain, are complementary and, more importantly, consistent with the ultimate goal of cultural pluralism. Summarizing their position, they state that:
[b]ringing together critical and pragmatic traditions ... links the contextual emphasis and equity goal of critical theory with the self-questioning and pluralism of pragmatic philosophy. The critical perspective gives depth and direction to pragmatic inquiry and dialogue. Pragmatism, in return, reminds us that cultural critique encompasses us all; none of us or our cherished beliefs, individually or collectively as members of one or another group, is above or beyond question. (33)
To clarify this final point, Cornbleth and Waugh insist (quoting Richard Bernstein) that any discussion of a controversial issue should begin with the assumption that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding. The initial task is to grasp the other's position in the strongest possible light (emphasis in the original) ... The other is not an adversary or an opponent, but a conversational partner. How refreshing this sounds after so much tiresome, partisan bickering in our public discourse of late.
In the second half of the chapter, the authors outline three approaches to multicultural reform. Unfortunately, in doing so, they quickly retreat from the potentially fruitful analytical position just described. Relying on categories long since advanced by James Banks, the authors identify these three approaches as additive, revisionist, and transformative. They describe an additive approach as appending multicultural lessons to a conventional curriculum. This, they say, is better than nothing, but clearly inadequate to the goal of cultural pluralism. A revisionist approach, which involves viewing cultural development from more than one perspective, is an improvement, but is still inadequate. The authors argue that only a transformative approach, which involves "accommodating both racial-ethnic-cultural diversity and interconnections among diverse individuals and groups," is capable of fostering the intellectual and dispositional understandings that are consistent with a truly pluralistic culture.
The presentation of these approaches and the ideological assumptions underlying each is thoughtful and clear, but the authors' depiction of those who support transformative multiculturalism and those who oppose it degenerates into a simplistic, "good guys versus bad guys" division: transformational multiculturalists versus reactionary neo-nativists.
This framework is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it is misleading. Diane Ravitch, William Bennett, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.-repeatedly cited as leading neo-nativists-may have a vision of United States culture that is too hierarchical and too narrow, and their analysis of the country's history may place too much emphasis on consensus and progress. Notwithstanding, they are not of the same nativist ilk as Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard, and Albert Johnson (or Pat Buchanan and Peter Brimelow, for that matter). In fact, many of the teachers and school administrators whom the authors interviewed-some of whom strongly support transformative ideals-consider the curricular prescriptions of Ravitch and others clearly preferable to the curriculum in place just ten years earlier. By that standard, such prescriptions are not reactionary. Wanting, perhaps, but not reactionary.
Second, and more telling, the uncompromising categorization of people as either "with us or against us" seems wholly inconsistent with the tenets of critical pragmatism and the goals of transformative multiculturalism. Some notion of conversion is at least implicit in both. Furthermore, from a purely strategic point of view, dismissively labeling one's opponents in this way seems terribly shortsighted, especially in a context in which reform requires broad popular support. Such tactics may promote intra-group solidarity, but do so at the expense of inter-group communication. The former may have some vague psychological appeal, but the latter is more consistent with the goal of reform.
Implementing a transformative approach to education, in other words, will require some future reconciliation of current ideological differences. This is far more likely to occur if these differences are not compounded by personal rancor. That is one reason why Martin Luther King, Jr., was so insistent on non-violent tactics in his direct action civil rights campaigns. He understood that violence is counter-productive for reconciliation. Verbal excesses are similarly counter-productive.
Hopefully, people who support the ideas of those branded as neo-nativists-and there are many, as Cornbleth and Waugh acknowledge-will not find such heavy-handed rhetoric too off-putting. If they can filter out all the offensive, ad hominem references, they will find much in The Great Speckled Bird that is challenging in the best sense of the term. Indeed, the heart of the book, two chapters about New York sandwiched between two about California, is an excellent example of the unique educative potential of case study inquiry. The insights about curriculum reform in general and multicultural reform in particular that are imbedded in these studies have the sharp, singular focus of an anecdote, yet ring with the wisdom of general truths.
Most enlightening are the many examples of how recent curricular materials still marginalize and misrepresent specific groups of people. Admittedly, such marginalization and misrepresentations are less obvious than in the past; but this ironically, as the authors imply, can make their effect even more insidious. The preface to the fifth-grade history textbook endorsed by the California State Board of Education, for example, begins:
The hunters shiver as the icy wind blows across the empty land. It is flat and treeless here, covered only with moss and small shrubs. Far away the hunters can see a tall range of mountains covered with ice and snow.
So begins an imaginary account of the first humans who ever crossed over the ice from Asia to North America ... In Chapter 4 of this book, you will have the chance to read more about the ancestors of present-day Native Americans. (quoted in The Great Speckled Bird p. 62)
Sounds okay, right? Well, read it again. The problem Cornbleth and Waugh point out (referring to a critique by Stanford University professor, Sylvia Wynter) is the pronoun "you" in the final sentence. Had the authors of the textbook been more sensitive to present-day Native American students, they would have written the sentence differently. Perhaps:
You will have the chance to read more about the ancestors of some of us, those of us who today call ourselves Native Americans (quoted in The Great Speckled Bird p.62).
Such examples are plentiful and made with the deftness that is so lacking in the authors' references to neo-nativists. Furthermore, Cornbleth and Waugh offer these examples as illustrations of the balanced or "reciprocaquot; conception of history that they consider most compatible with transformative goals. Thus, they do not leave readers simply with a long list of specific criticisms, but with a general sense of what a potentially transformative multicultural approach to education entails. This is the book's most valuable contribution, one which is beneficial not only to policy-makers, but perhaps more importantly, to teachers. Indeed, Cornbleth and Waugh apparently understand that significant curriculum reform will take place only on a classroom-by-classroom basis. Teachers are key, as they are the ones who will put into effect official curricular mandates and thereby determine the future of social studies education.
Lost in all these wonderfully instructive examples, however, is the fact that many of the objectionable references-once pointed out-were rectified by authors and publishers in subsequent editions of the curricular materials. This is not what one would expect from resolute nativists. It does argue strongly for a transformative approach to education, though. The goal, after all, is to heighten understanding and awareness so that inaccuracies and insensitivities are minimized in the first place.
In discussing this point with a colleague-this book is one that compels discussion-the old metaphor of "a glass half empty, a glass half fulquot; quickly came up. Perhaps, my colleague suggested, that is the best way to understand Cornbleth's and Waugh's perspective: like most critics, they tend to focus on the empty half. A less presentist, more historical perspective, might have offered a more productive point of view.
Compared to the equity ideals that so many Americans claim to support, the current state of multicultural education and of social justice more generally are clearly in need of reform; but compared to the way things were in the past, there seems to be progress on both fronts. Such progress has not been smooth or steady, but halting and too often marked by periods of backsliding. It has not been painless and inevitable, either, but the result of much struggle and sacrifice. The Great Speckled Bird, rhetorical shortcomings and all, may well be more of a positive contribution to this ongoing struggle than a negative or inconsequential one. Ironically, though, that judgment will depend to a great extent on how the people most criticized by the book's authors interpret its message.
School of Education
State University of New York
The College at New Paltz
Educating the Democratic Mind
Edited by Walter C. Parker. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Reviewed by Andrea Libresco.
After yet another presidential election with a dismal turnout, this collection of sixteen essays on educating the democratic mind is now needed more than ever.
All of the authors have as their starting point the view expressed by James Banks in his foreword: "democrats are not born, but educated, and their education can and should be deliberate." However, the contributors offer different answers as to the kind of education that would best equip students to exercise the rights and duties of citizenship in our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic democracy.
The first three sections of the volume are devoted to twelve seminal works of the twentieth century, presented chronologically, including those of John Dewey and Harold Rugg in the early years; Shirley Engle, Donald Oliver and James Shaver from the inquiry-based "New Social Studies" school of the 1950s and 1960s; and Lawrence Kohlberg, Michael Apple and Paul Gagnon from the 1970s and 1980s.
The fourth section of the book includes four new articles dealing respectively with education for deliberative democracy, with the issue of how women and other underrepresented minorities may or may not fit into current and future civic education schema, with conflicting recent approaches to social education; and with a comparison of civic education in three other countries.
One theme running through almost all of the essays is that education in a democracy demands that students be given opportunities repeatedly to examine their conflicts in beliefs and values openly and rationally. After all, as Maurice Hunt and Lawrence Metcalf indicate in their proposal for courses which explore society's closed areas and taboo topics, "Any belief that has not been subjected to rational examination is by definition a prejudice no matter how correct or incorrect it may be."
The examination of conflicting beliefs requires a democratic system, which, as Alan Griffin pointed out, relies upon knowledge-in contrast to authoritarian systems, which rely on the suppression of doubt. If we want citizens to develop the habit of acquiring knowledge we must, according to Rugg, organize our courses around problems (as opposed to a chronological orientation) since "practice in thought is necessary to develop the power of thought." The point of developing this power of thought based on knowledge is, for Engle, the first step in creating good citizens, who are identified by "the quality of decisions which [they] reach on public and private matters of social concern."
Another theme raised first by Dewey in this collection (though much earlier by de Tocqueville) is that "democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living." One of the new contributors to this volume, David Mathews, builds on Dewey's idea, proposing that we should "avoid civic education which equates politics only with what government and politicians do; [otherwise] this limits the role of citizens to voting or advocating for a particular cause." Instead, Mathews proposes a model where citizens deliberate and locate common ground for action. The premise is that creative (as opposed to critical) public thinking allows us to know things we can know only when we are together.
A nationwide model of this deliberation is described in the final article in the volume, in which Ann Angell and Carole Hahn study civic participation and education in Great Britain, Japan and Denmark. In Denmark, it is required by law that, from first grade through high school, weekly class meetings are scheduled in which students discuss and resolve class and school problems, hear from and advise their representatives to student council, and decide on topics to be studied and methods to be used in the studies. This system epitomizes Engle's ideal of decision-making as the heart of civic education and builds in the deliberative forums advocated by Mathews. The result? Danish political culture is characterized by cooperation and negotiation, as opposed to confrontation, and Danish school children find it uncool to say they are not interested in politics and international issues. The authors point out that when asked about the fact that in class discussion and on exams students seem to present several opinions and express their own opinions, a teacher laughed and said, "Well, they know they have to do it to get a good mark. It's the Danish system."
The authors in this collection offer a wide range of proposals, from Kohlberg's classroom discussions of moral dilemmas to Bernard-Powers' "engendered" curriculum, to an interdisciplinary, year-long, block-scheduled citizen action program proposed by Newmann, Bertocci and Landsness that includes field work, community service and a final public presentation. The more traditional three years of chronological history (United States, Western Civilization and World) are offered by Gagnon, who reacts against the "life-adjustment" electives of the 1970s, and argues that "Historical knowledge is the precondition for political intelligence."
We live in a time that has seen a decline in both civic participation and membership in associations (Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" phenomenon). We live in a country where every few years opinion pollsters circulate the Bill of Rights unidentified and an astonishing number of respondents reject it. The task before us is difficult. Hunt and Metcalf warn that "reflection is hard and painful work"; Mathews tells us that "deliberation is working through difficult choices"; and in all of their words, the echo of de Toqueville can be heard: "Problems for democratic politics are not solvable in any neat or final way."
Andrea Libresco is a social studies teacher at Oceanside High School, Oceanside, New York, and a methods instructor at Hofstra University Hempsted, New York.