The limits of multiculturalism

May 22, 1992

The Baltimore City schools are considering how to put in place a new curriculum that stresses the contributions made by people of color, an area traditional schooling has ignored. The move toward "multicultural" or "Afrocentric" schooling can be a positive development if it helps motivate students who are alienated from the educational system. But it is no panacea.

The present school curriculum is outdated in more ways than just how it deals with minorities. The last comprehensive overhaul occurred more than 20 years ago. The world has changed quite a bit since then; there have been scientific discoveries, political upheavals, cultural transformations. Computers are now in many classrooms. So there is need to bring texts up to date and introduce more modern teaching methods. More attention to the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history, literature and the arts should be a natural part of that process.

What the movement toward multiculturalism cannot do is make up for what is lacking in other areas of students' lives. It can help build self-esteem among disadvantaged children -- but only if they have already received a good breakfast before the school day begins. It's no substitute for knowledgeable, caring teachers in the classroom or supportive, involved parents at home. By itself, it won't solve the problem of chronic shortages of school books and supplies.

Above all, it is no substitute for the political will to press for more equitable state school funding formulas and more private support from business and industry. Some advocates of multiculturalism seem to believe that simply changing the curriculum will automatically translate into intellectual empowerment of students that will enable them to reach their full potential. That is unlikely to happen so long as the school system remains deficient in so many other areas.

There are limits to what the multicultural movement can accomplish in the absence of basic reforms. Urban schools with large minority populations are not the only ones looking for new ways to motivate students. Many white suburban youngsters, who presumably have benefited from "Eurocentric" education, are also alienated from school. Multiculturalism might help them, too. But so would smaller classes, better equipped classrooms, more after-school programs -- in short, the same kinds of things that would make a big difference for children in Baltimore City.

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