Neglect, not whiteness, is the enemy The debate over multiculturalism

Gerald Early

October 16, 1991|By Gerald Early

ONE IS alternately bemused and amused by the hysteria over multiculturalism in our schools, the places where so many of our social traumas of conflict and transition have occurred in the past 30 years or so. This hysteria is that peculiarly American temperamental mix of enthusiasm and moralism that at times is much like a religious revival.

Presumably we have always had something like multiculturalism education. Western intellectual tradition and liberal education have always GeraldEarlyencouraged the study of other cultures and climes. Western thought is not parochial, and in America millions in public and private funds have been given in support of such study.

So our complaint is not whether we should study other cultures. That is a given. The issue is the consensus view: how we Americans have decided to view ourselves -- that is, the American culture and history that we want to teach our children.

Our discomfort with the nature of our consensus view reflects our discomfort with the familiar melting pot myth. At one time America was the place of personal and political liberty and of stifling conformity that erased our past as foreigners while it reinvented us as homogenized Americans. Now we think, rightly so, that we do not quite understand the pot in which this melting has taken place.

The black political movement of the 1960s and the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s have made us aware of those inadequately represented in our consensus view. But because our consensus view may have been skewed in the past does not justify throwing out the old consensus entirely. Inasmuch as multiculturalism encourages that, it is a pernicious idea. For it is impossible to have education without a cultural consensus of who and what we are, not as disparate groups but as a single people. It is indeed impossible to have a nation or even humanity without consensus.

Black minds are not being destroyed by "whiteness;" they are being destroyed by neglect. It is not a horror if a black child loves L. Frank Baum and has never heard of Sundiata; it is a horror that he or she may be incapable of reading either. If Afrocentrism ignites the black community to become actively involved in its children's education, this is good. But the African-Americans' battle is not with Eurocentrism or culturally biased tests; it is with massive indifference on the part of both blacks and whites and our tendency to render poor children dysfunctional through their environment. We must work to make these children work for the life of the mind.

What we must face today is that we no longer look upon education as the discipline of learning but rather as an act of consumption. And in our culture, consumption has taken on the therapeutic and evangelical aspects of both bad medicine and bad religion. Education is not laying on of hands nor is it counsel for saving the disturbed. It is work, the labor of the mind, pure and simple. If the idea of multiculturalism -- that is, exposure to different peoples and ideas -- is to serve our children and their need for a liberal education, which is still a sound concept, we should note three corollaries:

* First, the Western mainstream includes blacks, women, American Indians and others, and so its intellectual and artistic tradition should never be perceived as either white or male.

* Second, Americans are a single people of diverse backgrounds sharing the same values, hopes, desires and shortcomings, and not a collection of disparate cultures.

* Third, Afrocentrism and other movements that try to shield children from cultural "contamination" have their place in our land of diversity. But we can have no real truth until we realize that apart we have at best only a partial truth.

Gerald Early is a professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

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