©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Teaching Multicultural Social Studies in An Era Of Political Eclipse


THEODOTUS. “Caesar: you are a stranger here, and not conversant with our laws. The king and queen of Egypt may not marry except with their own royal blood. Ptolemy and Cleopatra are born king and consort just as they are born brother and sister.”

BRITANNUS (shocked). Caesar: this is not proper.

THEODOTUS (outraged). How!

CAESAR (recovering his self-possession). “Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”

—George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra1

Alan Singer

Veteran teachers know that hot curriculum debates in social studies, as in other areas, have a way of burning themselves out. Topics that must be taught today, and methods that are guaranteed to promote student success, frequently end up in the dust bin of history, and expensive teaching materials are stored away in the back of leaking book closets.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed as if everyone in the United States was discussing multiculturalism, and new textbooks and curriculum guides proudly proclaimed their multicultural focus. However, with public and professional attention now riveted on national standards, curricula that emphasize history instead of social studies, and proposals for national testing programs, the demand for multicultural inclusion in social studies curricula may have run its course.

Social studies educators committed to multicultural education are faced with a serious challenge: How to insure multicultural inclusion when multiculturalism is no longer the primary issue under discussion?

Part of the difficulty in developing multicultural social studies curricula is that there are competing definitions of multicultural education, and each definition implies a different approach to curriculum and teaching. For example, in Multicultural Education as Social Activism, Christine Sleeter identifies a number of broad schools of thought.2 She reports that in many school systems, multicultural social studies has simply meant adding a lesson here or there about people and regions that were previously overlooked: developing nations, Native Americans, women, African Americans, immigrants, workers, gay and lesbian people, and/or people with handicapping conditions. Other than this, social studies curricula largely remain the same.

In some schools and districts, human relations workshops are used to increase student and staff sensitivity towards each other and to encourage respect for cultural differences. Frequently, workshops or a mandated lesson follow a period of increasing racial and ethnic tension among students or in the community. A human relations approach can also include an activity like an annual international cultural festival celebrating student diversity.

Another approach to multicultural social studies has been called “Teaching the Culturally Different.” In this approach, teachers adjust the standard curriculum content to include a broader focus on the groups of people represented in their classrooms. In the New York City metropolitan area, many high school social studies departments begin the 9th grade global studies curriculum with an examination of the Middle East; others, with Africa or Latin America. However, this initial unit has a way of stretching out forever as teachers introduce concepts such as “culture” and topics such as the relationship between geography and history. As a result, other regions of the world that are scheduled for later in the semester always get condensed. Other schools completely reorganize the curricula to concentrate on a single cultural group or geographic region of the world, usually one with a connection to the student body. The objective is to engage student interest and redress previous gaps in what was covered in social studies classrooms, but whether this is the right approach to the problem is a point of serious contention.

There is no rule that says that multicultural education has to be limited to social studies curriculum content. There are classrooms, though they are usually in the lower grades, where parents, teachers, and children work together to reorganize the entire school environment to achieve multicultural goals. Examples of this approach are La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and the Central Park East elementary and secondary schools in New York City.3

Sleeter advocates an approach to multicultural education which she calls “multicultural education as social reconstruction.” She argues that a multicultural curriculum should offer students a way to study about injustice and oppression, encourage them to question and critique society, and provide them with skills for social activism. I share her preference for an all-embracing activist approach to social studies, one that makes it possible for students to understand, challenge, and change society. But I also recognize that this view of multicultural education does not easily translate into classroom practice, and that teachers often do not have the authority or the ability to create conditions for this kind of education in individual classrooms.

To accommodate the politics of public education in an era when concern for multicultural education is becoming eclipsed, I recommend curricula that make a critical examination of society possible by combining multicultural education with an inquiry-based approach to social studies. This approach draws on the essential questions model advocated by Grant Wiggins, the belief of Paulo Freire that education must involve students in examining questions about the problems facing their own communities, and the focus on social issues presented by National Council for the Social Studies in its Handbook On Teaching Social Issues.4 In this approach to multicultural social studies, teachers and students continuously frame and examine complex and controversial questions about United States society and the contemporary world, and use these questions to direct their examination of the past.


The Inquiry Method at Work

As a high school social studies teacher in New York City, I distributed newspapers and news magazines to teams of students in my 11th grade United States history classes at the start of the semester. The student teams were assigned to select five articles that they believed reported on important issues facing the United States in the contemporary world. Teams had to write down the headlines of the articles and their reasons for selecting them. At the end of the period, I asked at least one group to report on their deliberations, then listed the topics of the articles on the board.

On the second day, the rest of the groups reported and we listed the topics of every article from both days. After the presentations, students categorized the issues facing the United States, identified underlying problems raised by the news articles, and discussed questions they wanted to answer during the year. Articles on racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and police brutality led to questions such as, “Can the United States become a more just society?” Topics like welfare reform, health care, unemployment, tax breaks, and crime provoked students to ask, “What is the responsibility (or job) of government?”

Still other questions developed by students have included, “Should the United States be the world’s police force?” and “Is technology making the world a better place?” Essential questions can be placed on poster boards and hung prominently around the room. Students took pride in the questions they came up with, and the project increased their willingness to participate in class and furthered our exploration of social studies and history.

Student-generated questions, especially about social justice and the responsibility of government, commonly place multicultural issues at the center of the curriculum. They lead to other questions, and provide a focus for studying about the past, understanding the present, and deciding how to engage the future. The key to this approach is to respect student questions and to encourage student voices. I believe that these are also crucial elements in any multicultural approach to social studies.

Placing student questions at the center of a multicultural curriculum is not easy; once we open our classrooms up to student voices, we are not always going to be happy with what they say. For example, one of the student teachers I worked with was placed at a high school where almost all of the students were black. He was Jamaican and his cooperating teacher, a graduate of the same preservice teacher education program, was African American. When I visited the class, I was the only white person in the room.

During a lesson about the impact of African geography on human history, the student teacher introduced the issue of human evolution in East Africa. One of the students interrupted him and said, “Maybe Europeans come from apes, but I don’t.” For a long moment there was silence, and the student teacher did not know what to do. At that point I laughed; I told the class that I was not insulted, and that the student had introduced an issue the class needed to examine. I offered to give the class material to read and discuss on another day, and the lesson continued. After the period was over, the student teacher was still upset with his inability to handle the comment. He was surprised when I said I thought he should be pleased because he had helped to create an atmosphere in the classroom where students felt free to introduce their real thoughts. Enforced silence is not going to change anyone’s mind about the world.

This approach to teaching multicultural social studies is much more difficult than outlining a chapter and teaching from the textbook, but it is also much more exciting and significant. By the time many students get to high school, they have learned to distrust teachers. They are convinced that school survival means keeping their mouths shut and their questions unasked, and that speaking out means being branded a troublemaker. Getting a good, or even a passing, grade means telling a teacher what he or she wants to hear, while maintaining personal integrity means not letting the teacher—in some cases, identified as “the man,” “the system,” or “whitey”—into your head. Teachers have to find ways to unleash suppressed student interest and use them to accomplish the goals of social studies.5


Concerns in Adopting this Approach

At workshops with high school teachers in New York State, participants have generally expressed three major concerns with an inquiry-based multicultural social studies curriculum. They worry about the need to prepare students for statewide standardized tests in global studies and U.S. history; the problem of establishing historical truth when multiple voices and controversial positions are introduced into discussion; and their ability as teachers to conduct an open and civil classroom discourse if sharp conflicts emerge during discussion.

I find the problem of preparing students for standardized exams is the easiest to address. On most standardized tests, at least to date, students do not pass or fail because of the specific social studies content presented in textbooks or in class. Students do well on these examinations when they are engaged by discussion in class, understand the general social studies concepts integrated into the curriculum, and have adequate reading and writing skills. No specific piece of information is ever absolutely crucial.

The debate over what makes something true is a lot harder to resolve, but is hardly new. The meaning of truth and the possibility of acquiring it have been debated throughout world history, especially in Western intellectual traditions. According to Mortimer Adler, writing as editor of Great Books of the Western World:

...the great issues concern whether we can know the truth and how we can ever tell whether something is true or false. Though the philosophers and scientists, from Plato to Freud, seem to stand together against the extreme sophistry or skepticism which denies the distinction between true and false or puts truth utterly beyond the reach of man, they do not all agree on the extent to which truth is attainable by men, on its immutability or variability, on the signs by which men tell whether they have the truth or not, or on the causes of error and the means for avoiding falsity.6

I am not suggesting an “everything goes” attitude, or that every statement about the past is equally valid. But what social studies teachers need to acknowledge is that we are a lot less certain than we like to pretend, and that adults as well as students are susceptible to being trapped by comforting myths.

For example, Diane Ravitch and Abigal Thernstrom edited a collection called The Democracy Reader that includes classic and modern speeches, essays, poems, declarations, and documents on freedom and human rights.7 Their collection supports a thesis championed by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who argues that we can trace the history of democratic ideals as an essential component of Western philosophy from ancient Greece to the modern world.8 But a casual examination of the table of contents raises some interesting problems. The first concerns the large time gap between Aristotle’s The Politics (ca. 320 BC) and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia (ca. 1250 AD). Even if the ancient Greek city-states possessed a system with recognizably democratic elements, it is exceedingly difficult to establish a direct political or intellectual connection between societies separated by over 1,500 years of history. In addition, the authors included in this collection do not constitute a generally accepted pantheon of democratic thinkers. An argument can even be made that Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Nietzsche were among the least democratic spokespersons of their respective ages.

I believe that out of an uncritical desire to demonstrate a long, linear pedigree for democracy in the West, Ravitch and Thernstrom attribute democratic qualities to aspects of the Western intellectual tradition that are actually undemocratic, while minimizing democratic qualities in non-Western societies.9

Rather than insist that students accept one version of immutable facts, we need to help them become practicing historians and social scientists who weigh evidence, evaluate theories, and work collectively to establish and continually reevaluate criteria for understanding our world. At Central Park East Secondary School (in New York City), students learn to ask and answer a set of five questions as they try to establish the validity of a proposition.10


> How do you know what you know? (Evidence)

> From whose viewpoint is this being presented? (Perspective)

> How is this event or work connected to others? (Connection)

> What if things were different? (Supposition)

> Why is this important? (Relevance)


Anthropologist Marvin Harris, whose work explains riddles of human culture such as dietary prohibitions on certain types of food and the evolution of human societies, argues for two major criteria when evaluating theories about human beliefs and history.11 First, to be valid, theories must be consistent and generalizable. Social scientists cannot invent new and unrelated explanations for each new phenomenon. Second, explanations for human beliefs and behavior must be based on evidence. Historians and social scientists cannot legitimately disregard information that does not easily fit their a priori views, or ignore the actual physical or material conditions of people’s lives.

Finally, teachers are often concerned that they will not be able to control classroom discussions, expecially on issues that are volatile. But conflict is not necessarily bad; it can be a creative force that pushes students to delve deeper into issues and to find evidence to support their opinions. Control, on the other hand, is not necessarily good — especially when it stifles intellectual freedom and student voiced. This said, heated discussion in the classroom—to be productive—requires that students listen to each other and respond to each other’s ideas. In my experience, this happens more effectively in a democratic classroom than in an authoritarian classroom. In order for a multicultural social studies curriculum based on essential questions and controversial issues to be effective, students must feel related to each other and the teacher, have respect for other people and their intelligence, have practice engaging in dialogues rather than debating to win, and see themselves as part of a shared quest to study and understand the world.12

Both students and teachers have to realize that understanding the world takes a long time, and that people’s ideas do not change instantaneously just because you think you have found the solution to a problem. They also should remember the bit of wisdom that George Bernard Shaw has Julius Caesar share with Theodotus in the play, Caesar and Cleopatra. “Pardon him, Theodotus,” Caesar exclaims, “he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”



1. George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1970), 45.

2. Christine Sleeter, Multicultural Education as Social Activism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), 6-9.

3. George H. Wood, Schools That Work (New York: Dutton, 1992), 18-25; Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Boston: Beacon, 1995).

4. Grant Wiggins, “The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance,” Educational Leadership 47 (November 1989): 44-48, 57-59; Ira Shor, ed., Freire for the Classroom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1987), 7-32; Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, eds., Handbook On Teaching Social Issues, Bulletin No. 93 (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996).

5. Herbert Kohl, I Won’t Learn From You (New York: Norton, 1994).

6. Mortimer J. Adler , ed., Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 915.

7. Diane Ravitch and Abigal Thernstrom, eds., The Democracy Reader: Classic and Modern Speeches, Essays, Poems, Declarations, and Documents on Freedom and Human Rights Worldwide (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

8. Orlando Patterson, Freedom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

9. C. B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).

10. Deborah Meier and Paul Schwartz, “Central Park East Secondary School: The Hard Part is Making It Happen,” in Michael Apple and James A. Beane, eds., Democratic Schools (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1995).

11. Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches; The Riddles of Culture (New York: Random House, 1974).

12. Michael Pezone and Alan Singer, “Empowering Immigrant Students Through Democratic Dialogues,” Social Education 61(February 1997): 75-79.


Alan Singer is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.

An Inquiry-Based Approach to Multicultural Social Studies

The following are some of the essential questions/controversial issues that I have introduced for discussion and research in high school classrooms as part of a multicultural social studies curriculum.

1 When did American (United States) history begin? Does United States history begin before it is formally an independent nation? Are the Native American experience prior to the Columbian encounter and the West African experience prior to enslavement part of this history?

2 What are the defining characteristics of Western Civilization? Are European and United States histories the story of a march towards progress and democracy? Are slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, war, and genocide unfortunate mistakes or central features of this history?

3 What are Sub-Saharan Africa’s contributions to world history? Was Egyptian civilization African, Mediterranean, or a blended culture combining contributions from different sources? Are the similar cultural phenomena found in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe examples of cultural diffusion or independent parallel development?

4 How do we handle painful words and images from the past? Important historical sources, including fiction by Mark Twain and a speech by Sojourner Truth, use the word “nigger.” Vicious stereotypes of immigrants, such as Thomas Nast’s cartoon portrayals of the Irish as ape-like, abound in different eras. There is film footage available of police attacking civil rights workers in the South during the 1950s-1960s, Jewish corpses and survivors in Nazi concentration camps, and Hiroshima after the nuclear attack. Should students study these works? Should they be edited? Is historical authenticity more important than the impact of painful words and images on students? How should decisions be made?

5 Regarding Socrates, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Amelia Earhart, et al. Should students discuss who they were in terms of their sexuality? There is increasing evidence that a number of major historical figures were either homosexual or bisexual. Should students learn about the sexual orientation of people studied in class?

6 What is the immigrant experience in the United States? Is there only one experience? Should assimilation be a group’s goal? How do we account for differences in the way people were received on arrival? How do we account for different rates of assimilation and economic mobility?

7 Should Western societies impose values on other cultures? Will efforts to eradicate traditional practices liberalize societies or reinforce these practices as people resist outside pressures? How should we approach topics such as child labor and female genital mutilation in contemporary developing nations?

8 Are rap songs an acceptable part of youth culture? Should students listen to works by Tupac Shakur as contemporary social documents?

9 In foreign policy, do ends justify means? Are the goals of U.S. foreign policy different from goals pursued by other world powers in the past and in the contemporary world? Have U.S. foreign policy decisions been based on democratic principles—as claimed by such presidents as Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush—or have they been based on military, political, and economic self-interest? Is there a difference between military attacks on civilian populations and terrorism?

10 Are people in the United States poor because of personal inadequacies or because of social inequality? Is racism still a force in the United States? Will eliminating social welfare programs help people become more self-reliant or will it further victimize people forced to live on the margins of society? Are their enough jobs for everyone in the United States who wants to and is able to work?

11 The World Wide Web includes sites with material that denies the Holocaust, justifies racism and ethnocentrism in today’s world, and promotes conspiracy theories. How should this information be evaluated? Should it be introduced in classroom discussion? Should students be permitted to cite these sources in research papers?

12 Can white men understand the blues? In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass wrote: “I have never heard any songs like those anywhere since I left slavery, except when in Ireland. There I heard the same wailing notes, and was much affected by them. It was during the famine of 1845-6” [Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Dover, 1969).] How can contemporary students build on their own experiences to help them understand and empathize with the experience and culture of diverse groups of people today and in the past?