Multiculturalism vs. Globalism


Nelly Ukpokodu

One of the privileges of being a teacher educator is having the opportunity to work with classroom teachers in the public schools. As one of the few faculty members of color in a predominantly white rural university community, the demand for my services as an “expert” on multicultural and global education has offered many opportunities to enter school classrooms. I have been invited to work with schools attempting to transform their curricula to reflect global and multicultural perspectives. Increasingly, these occasions have provided me with valuable firsthand perspectives on how teachers understand the concepts of multiculturalism and globalism.

For example, I frequently receive calls from teachers or principals asking me to guest lecture on African culture as part of the activities for a multicultural unit. The conversations go something like this: “ I think I am doing some justice to multicultural education this year; my class has studied Japan, India, Germany, Canada, Australia, and now we are getting ready to study Africa.” “This year I was able to implement a multicultural unit and it was great; we read lots of literature books from around the world as we studied units on China, Mexico, Russia, and Kenya.” “I would like to invite you to my class to talk about African culture as a culminating activity for our multicultural unit.”

For years, these kinds of conversations have deeply puzzled me. Until recently, I was critical of teachers who implement units on other countries and feel they are offering a multicultural curriculum. I was convinced that their substitution of globalism for multiculturalism was a device to sidestep and/or reject multiculturalism in education. To validate my suspicion, I asked my colleagues in higher education to help me understand why so many teachers excitedly implement units on cultures and peoples of other lands, but do not infuse multicultural perspectives about the United States into the curriculum. A common response was that teachers are uncomfortable teaching about what is “here” and “within” our own society, and are more comfortable teaching about what is “exotic” and “over there.” Or, as I interpreted it, teachers—who are predominantly white—find issues of multiculturalism too sensitive to handle, while teaching about cultures of other lands is far enough away to be less threatening.

Last year, I had several opportunities to test out my assumptions about the teaching (or lack thereof) of multiculturalism. One occurred when I was consulted about a school-wide project on multicultural education labeled “Global Fax.” My first meeting with faculty members provided an overview of the project, including a description of its goals. As I listened, I heard the concepts of globalism and multiculturalism used interchangeably.

To ensure that I was clear on their goals, I asked the teachers to articulate exactly what they hoped to accomplish by this project. The immediate response went like this: We are doing multiculturalism because we want our students to be aware of different cultures and their contributions to the United States. We plan to study ten countries—Nigeria, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Philippines, Germany, India, Saudi Arabia, and France.” To this, I replied: “What exactly did you say your goal was—global or multicultural education?” Surprised at my question, the school staff, including teachers and principal, asked: “Is there a difference?” “Aren’t they the same?

Students enrolled in the courses I teach have similarly demonstrated a misunderstanding of multiculturalism. For example, five weeks into the semester, students enrolled in my multiculturalism course become impatient because we had not yet studied any cultures of Asia or Africa. In some of my classes, I ask students to identify people of color and their contributions to our society; most students come back with the names of foreign individuals. Nor is this misunderstanding confined to teachers and preservice teachers. When my students conduct interviews with university faculty about how they integrate multicultural content into their courses, common methods cited are describing foreign travel experiences, interacting with international students, listening to world news, and using videos about other cultures.

From these and similar interactions, I have come to understand that many teachers are not intentionally rejecting multiculturalism in education, but rather, lack an adequate understanding of the concept and how it is distinguished from globalism. For most of them, the purpose of a multicultural unit is to create cultural awareness. They believe that by studying units on cultures of other lands, students will come to understand people of diverse backgrounds in the United States.


Multiculturalism vs. Globalism

Banks draws a clear distinction between multiculturalism and globalism: globalism emphasizes the cultures and peoples of other lands and multiculturalism deals with ethnic diversity within the United States.1 In explaining the difference, he uses the example of how many teachers do a superb job implementing a unit on Japan, but avoid teaching about Japanese internment in the United States during World War II. Other educators have differentiated between the two concepts by describing globalism as a vehicle for the examination and delivery of global equity and multiculturalism as a vehicle for examining and delivering national equity.2

Baker describes multiculturalism as the study of ethnicity or cultural diversity within the United States and the transformation of learning environments in order to successfully educate students from diverse backgrounds. She describes globalism, on the other hand, as a focus on the historical and cultural development of a country, but not on the diversity within that country.3 All of these definitions of multiculturalism and globalism go beyond the limited sense of creating cultural awareness to encompass a promotion of social equity and justice on a national or global level.

The fallacy of identifying multiculturalism and globalism as one and the same becomes evident in reading Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Got Traveling Shoes. Angelou vividly recounts how she was reminded of her “Americanness” when she went to Africa. She describes how, in a place she had called “motherland,” the people she had looked forward to meeting saw her as a stranger and treated her as an “American Negro” and not a homecoming African; “her language, behavior, thinking, and customs had transformed her into an unrecognizable tribe.”4

As someone who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, I see great differences between the experiences of Africans on that continent and Africans in the Diaspora (here, African Americans).5 A Nigerian child in Nigeria does not have to struggle with his or her cultural identity as do my immigrant children in the United States, who are constantly being reminded that they do not belong. Moreover, while a child in an African country may experience the effects of poverty, he or she does not experience the stigma of past dehumanization and second-class citizenship, and the modern realities of ghettoization and denial of opportunity, that confront Americans of African descent. In sum, studying a unit on Africa does not help students understand the African American experience now or in the past.

The same observations hold true about other American ethnic groups. Units on Japan and China are popular study areas in the curriculum. But does the study of Japan or China really increase students’ understanding of the experience of being a Japanese American or a Chinese American? The author of The Marginal Man vividly describes a Japanese American gir#146;s feelings of foreignness and alienation when she visits her grandparents in Japan. Although she wants to stay there, she finds it impossible to do so. She does not speak the language, and moreover, everything about her betrays her American origin.6 In Homesick: My Own Story, a Chinese American relates her experience of rejection by the people of her ancestral homeland, who hurl insults at her and refer to her as a “foreign devil.”7

The experience of Puerto Ricans in the United States illustrates the same point. All Puerto Ricans are American citizens by right of their commonwealth status. But although Puerto Ricans born in the United States may be regarded as—or feel themselves to be—second-class citizens, they are viewed as “Americanos” by Puerto Rican islanders. Thus, to adopt units of study based on students’ ancestral cultures in order to promote understanding of the diverse groups that make up American society is somewhat naive. While learning about the peoples and cultures of other lands helps students to understand global diversity, such study properly falls within the domain of globalism. It is the more direct study of ethnic groups and other minorities, and their distinctive experiences within American society, that constitutes the domain of multiculturalism.

The Domain of Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism in education involves transforming the curriculum through thematic units wherein historical and contemporary events, issues, and concepts are taught and viewed from multiple perspectives that reflect the diversity within our society. In the social studies, however, students have often been presented with a narrow perspective or a distorted view about many of the events in history.

For example, the encounter between Native Americans and early European immigrants to North America has, until recently, been told almost exclusively from the perspective of the Europeans. This is evident in my college course on multiculturalism, where I usually begin by asking students to identify images that come to mind when they hear the term “Native Americans.” Images such as “warlike,” “savages,” “bloodthirsty,” “alcoholism,” and “reservations” are among those named. I next have students watch the video 500 Nations and write down their responses to it. Many reveal anger and disgust at the Europeans’ ill treatment of Native Americans as depicted in the video. Students also express anger at an educational system that denied them access to the Native American perspective of the Battle of Wounded Knee. The following response shed some light:

“I have never learned this part of history; no culture’s history should be excluded or hidden.”

“It is really unfair and cruel of my ancestors to treat Indians this badly and turn around to describe them as warlike and bloodthirsty when they were the ones that slaughtered and killed innocent and harmless young and old people in cold blood.”

“I have always judged Native Americans harshly but this new information has helped me to understand the root cause of poverty and problems among Native Americans.”

A curricular approach that incorporates the perspectives of Native Americans in the presentation of historical events enables students to engage in the critical analysis that can foster a better understanding of past and present.

The American Revolution is another historical event usually presented from a monocultural point of view that emphasizes political developments and military prowess. A transformed multicultural approach would enable students to view the event from multiple perspectives, including those of women, Native Americans, and African Americans. Such an approach would help students to understand the position of Native Americans who were loyal to the British for their support in preserving their land from colonists. They would learn about the motives of African American slaves who went over to the British side in the hope of winning their freedom. And they would better appreciate the bravery of women such as Molly “the Pitcher” as they disguised themselves and rendered valuable services to their male counterparts on the battlefield.

A multicultural approach allows for diverse voices, particularly those formerly silenced, to be heard in the reflecting mirrors of history. It means not a denigration of our history, but an opening up to include knowledge essential to developing critical reflection about our society. Through this process, all students can learn to take pride in their heritage and to develop a more healthy and accurate identity for themselves. Students of the dominant culture can recognize that they are a microculture with no more claim to superiority than other cultures within the broader society. Mizell et al explain this point well when they state:

[M]ost white children have spent their academic lives looking into distorted mirrors of their history and culture which only reflected people like themselves; while most children of color have been pointed toward a narrow window, which offered an obstructed view of the world and their place in it.8

A multicultural approach eliminates distortion by offering all students both windows and mirrors on themselves and society.


The Domain of Globalism

Globalism in education emerged as a response to the reality of growing interconnectedness and interdependence among nations created by modern technology. More than ever before, the human family faces a host of critical concerns and challenges that defy unilateral national solutions. These include environmental concerns such as pollution and depletion of the ozone layer; political concerns involving forms of government, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and nuclear war; and socioeconomic concerns such as global trade and economic development, poverty, hunger, overpopulation, and the spread of epidemic diseases. The need to help students develop global perspectives and understand civic responsibilities was articulated by Robert Muller, Assistant Secretary General during International Youth Year in 1985:

A child born today will be faced as an adult, almost daily, with problems of a global interdependent nature, be it peace, food, the quality of life, inflation, or scarcity of resources. He will be both an actor, and a beneficiary, victim in the total world fabric, and he may rightly ask: why was I not warned? Why was I not better educated? Why did my teachers not tell me about these problems and indicate my behavior as a member of an interdependent human race? It is therefore the duty and the self- enlightened interest of governments to educate their children properly about the type of world in which they are going to live.9

Knowledge about peoples and cultures of other lands is, more than ever before, crucial to any nation’s economic and psychological wellbeing, and to its security. Thus, globalism in education aims at developing students’ knowledge and understanding of peoples and cultures of other lands, including their values, customs, institutional systems, resources, environmental adaptations, and societal challenges. Ideally, it should help students to become aware of both human diversity and the commonalities in human experience.


Fusing Multiculturalism and Globalism

Although this article has been concerned with defining the boundaries between multiculturalism and globalism, it is obvious that these concepts have shared purposes. Both seek to increase students’ civic responsibility through broader understanding of human commonalities and human diversity. Both can help students to develop skills of informed decision making on issues of equity within the national community [multiculturalism] and the global community [globalism]. Both are complementary and can be implemented simultaneously.

Based on my personal observations, one common error in the teaching of multiculturalism is treating it as a one-shot dea#151;something that happens on a special occasion (day, week, or month) as an add-on to the main curriculum. This curricular approach often involves students engaging in superficial activities that create interest and participation but lack meaningful multicultural learning experiences.

For example, teachers and students often spend time studying about Africa during Black History month, China on the occasion of Chinese New Year, and Mexico during the month of May (Cinco de Mayo). Students do research on each culture, drawing maps, preparing foods, performing dances, and doing arts and crafts. While these activities can help develop some cultural appreciations, they run the risk of leaving students with no more than a tourist or museum visit understanding of a culture. Such a limited approach to the curriculum can actually serve to perpetuate stereotypes and trivialize the values and issues of importance to a particular culture.

True multicultural education exists when it is not an isolated activity but an integrated daily experience. And the same holds true for globalism.

While it is possible to accomplish multicultural and global education within a specific unit—for example, the family structure within microcultures in the United States and cultures around the world—the difference between the two must be clearly understood. Baker puts it well when she explains that global learning becomes multicultural learning only when and if a bridge is established between two cultures.10

Both multiculturalism and globalism are needed to prepare our students for national and global citizenship. Failure to do so will result in the inadequate preparation of American citizens for the realities of the 21st century. If America’s students are to be empowered to transform their world—to change and improve it for the public good and for themselves—they must understand both their intricately interwoven lives and histories within U.S. society and their relationships to other cultures of the world.



1. Ronald Brandt, “On Educating for Diversity: A Conversation with James A. Banks,” Educational Leadership 51 (1994): 28-31.

2. Gene F. Miller and Michael. G Jacobson, “Teaching for Global Mindedness,” Social Studies & the Young Learner 6 (1994): 4-6; Doni Kwolele Kobus, “Multicultural/Global Education: An Educational Agenda for the Rights of the Child,” Social Education 56 (1992): 224-227; Jan Drum and Gary Howard, (1989, January). Issues in Education: Multicultural and Global Education: Seeking Common Ground, Conference report, Las Palomas de Taos, N. M., January 1989 (Muscatine, Iowa: The Stanley Foundation, 1989).

3. Gwendolyn Baker, Planning and Organizing for Multicultural Education (California: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994).

4. Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (New York: Vantage Books, 1986).

5. This excepts Africans who experienced apartheid or other racial segregation in South Africa, Zimbabwe. Namibia, and Zambia.

6. Everett V. Stonequist, The Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965).

7. Jean Fritz, Homesick: My Own Story (New York: Putnam, 1982).

8. Linda Mizell, Susan Bennett, Bisse-Bowman, and Lorraine Morin, “Different Ways of Seeing: Teaching in an Anti-racist School,” in Theresa Perryand James Fraser, eds., Freedom’s Plow: Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom (New York Routledge, 1993).

9. Robert Muller, “The Need for Global Education,” from a speech presented by World Federalists of Canada (Dundas Ontario, Canada: Sally Curry, 1985).

10. Baker.


Nelly Ukpokodu is an assistant professor in the Division of Teacher Education & Curriculum and Instruction, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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