Schlesinger's multicultural dissent

June 12, 1992

The clamorous debate over political correctness has been turned up a notch by the publication of "The Disuniting of America," the latest book by venerable historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The slim volume recently spent a surprising 10 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Mr. Schlesinger argues that just as numerous nations of the post-Cold War world are splitting into smaller ethnic pockets, the United States is undergoing a similar experience in the way minorities are demanding and achieving school curricula that focus on the achievements of each group. This process, the historian ruefully notes, threatens the concept of America as a melting pot of assimilated ethnic clans sharing common concerns and goals.

In its place could emerge a "disunited" number of individual groups, especially minorities, segregating themselves from the larger and -- as they see it -- bigoted society, so they might shake the legacy of so many dead white European males.

The lion's share of Mr. Schlesinger's critique is aimed at Afrocentrism. Proponents of this educational philosophy say it boosts the self-esteem of black American students by teaching them the glories of their people's past, especially the glories of ancient African civilization. Mr. Schlesinger counters that certain claims of African breakthroughs are just plain false -- "bad history," he calls it -- and poorly serve young blacks who would do better to learn about the society in which they live rather than the land of their ancestors.

Some will see irony in that Mr. Schlesinger, a liberal Democrat of long standing, now finds himself on the conservative side of the political-correctness issue. But this is not simply a matter of liberal vs. conservative or black vs. white, he says, adding that he is joined in his skepticism of Afrocentric curricula by such leading black scholars as John Hope Franklin, Frank M. Snowden Jr., Orlando Patterson and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

While Mr. Schlesinger might find easy targets in the more extreme multiculturalists, they do serve a purpose by calling attention to glaring gaps in how the history and the culture of the U.S. are taught in our schools. Surely most people can agree, in true democratic fashion, that courses should give fair weight to Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison as well as to Robert Frost and William Faulkner; to Benjamin Banneker as well as to Thomas Edison; to Crispus Attucks as well as to Thomas Paine, and to all minority Americans whose contributions have been as significant as those of the white Americans who have always received prominent play in the telling of our country's story.

There should be room for all, in the history books and in the melting pot.

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