Multiculturalism Without Apologies

GLENN McNATT

December 12, 1992|By GLENN McNATT

"Multiculturalism,'' the current buzzword for the demand by blacks and other minorities that school curriculums more accurately reflect their contributions to history, is by definition a challenge to the status quo. At best, it represents a long overdue corrective to unexamined assumptions and biases.

But the controversy brewing in New York City's public schools over a proposed multicultural curriculum has nothing to do with education and much to do with a power struggle between the system's central administration and its semi-autonomous neighborhood school boards.

Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez recently suspended a neighborhood board after it rejected a curriculum encouraging students to respect gay people. Board members complained it implied that homosexual and heterosexual lifestyles were equivalent.

In fairness, parts of the proposed curriculum were troubling. A lesson for elementary school students about the danger of AIDS, for example, referred to acts of gay lovemaking in such sexually explicit terms that most parents probably would be embarrassed to read it aloud. This seems unnecessary, even inimical to the desired message of tolerance.

Earlier this week, columnist George F. Will argued that such graphic descriptions send kids the wrong message.

''The curriculum's supporters say it promotes 'respect' and 'appreciation' of gays and lesbians, just as it does for racial and gender differences,'' he wrote. ''But the question of what constitutes sensible policy about sexual orientation is more complex than the question of what is sensible policy regarding racial and gender differences. Race and gender are genetically determined, not the result of choices.''

Mr. Will contended that a ''substantial number of people are born with the potential to live either straight or gay lives,'' and that ''the social environment, including schools, sends shaping messages.''

But there is another, competing body of evidence that suggests people no more ''choose'' their sexual orientation than they choose the color of their hair or eyes. According to this view, sexual orientation may be a genetic trait that is already ''hard- wired'' in the brain by the time an infant is born.

If this is true, being gay or straight is no more a matter of ''choice'' than being born male or female, black or white -- in which case a ''sensible policy'' regarding sexual orientation really would be no different than one regarding racial and gender differences.

Obviously more research is needed if we are to fashion intelligent policies regarding sexual orientation. Yet in a sense, the flap over New York's curriculum was not over policies at all, but prejudices.

In fact, the chancellor's proposal was merely a suggestion about how teachers might get across the lesson of tolerance. Local boards enjoy great latitude; they can modify, rewrite or even ignore such central administration documents. The real problem was that the board simply didn't want to teach the children to be tolerant of others' differences.

This certainly isn't the first time homophobia has been whipped upby those opposed to change. Among the allegations leveled against Socrates by the ancient Greek authorities was a charge he had ''corrupted the young men of Athens'' -- an accusation that is often read as a thinly veiled reference to sexual misconduct. Yet as Plato's account in the Apologies makes clear, Socrates' real crimes were political, not moral: He espoused a philosophy of free inquiry that those in power regarded as a threat to established order.

Opponents of multiculturalism in New York likewise have seized on sexual fears to block change in their political fight with the chancellor. But the ugly confrontation there need not be repeated here.

In Maryland, state education officials are currently developing guidelines that avoid explicit reference to sexual orientation, while allowing local school systems to include such material if they wish. This approach recognizes that disputes like the one in New York have a potential to disrupt the much broader thrust of multicultural education.

Since Baltimore City and Howard County already explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, perhaps they should incorporate tolerance into their school curriculums as well.

Yes, we ought to worry about the messages kids get. But they also need to know that gay bashing isn't OK. The only people threatened by that are those who think kids are better off learning hatred and intolerance than how to get along with others based on mutual respect.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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