Cultural Diversity in the Schools

September 08, 1991

During this school year, the learning experience of school children in Baltimore City and Prince George's County will be filtered through a new lens incorporating the history, culture, experience and achievements of Africans and African Americans. A discussion of the European Renaissance, for example, might include discussion of the University of Sankore at Timbuktu, which flourished at the same time. "What we are really striving to do is have a very accurate portrait of all the players who contributed to the period of time or field brought out in the classroom," said Prince George's County curriculum director Robert R. Ogden.

This seems reasonable enough in a nation hurtling rapidly toward widespread cultural and racial diversity. Yet multicultural curricula have met with considerable opposition from those who fear they will further isolate inner-city youngsters, and that European history itself may be lost in the process. It's hard to see how weaving African Americans -- and eventually other groups -- into our educational tapestry will lead to either outcome.

Imparting a diverse historical perspective that treats non-whites as equals can only add to the self esteem of youngsters too often bombarded by negative messages. The other worry, that European history will somehow be lost, misses the point -- the goal is to recognize the full spectrum of historical development so that children learn about both events in Europe and on other continents.

Multicultural instruction involves less change than the rhetoric suggests. Unlike an Afrocentric curriculum, for which Africa provides the nucleus, multi-culturalism incorporates contributions of all cultures. The distinction -- and it's an important one -- centers on focus and perspective. Too often, the roles of minorities are downplayed or excluded from traditional texts and lessons. A city school task force noted the use of pejorative comments, such as Europeans "discovering" existing nations and referring to people as bushmen or Pygmies instead of appropriate cultural names.

The growing presence of non-white students in the nation's schools and work place obliges us to rethink the way children are taught about their communities and the world around them, and how they fit into that world. The push for multicultural instruction in Baltimore City and Prince George's County addresses the needs of their large African American student enrollment. But such an approach is equally valid in areas without majority black representation. All students can benefit from a learning experience that places other groups in a fairer, more accurate light.

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