Multiculturalism Without Excuses

September 13, 1993

It's unfortunate that Baltimore's latest experiment in multicultural education is being launched just as a similar program in neighboring Washington, D.C., has come under fire for lacking intellectual integrity. School board members there were outraged recently to discover that the consultant hired to develop the city's "Afrocentric" program had misled officials about her credentials and methods.

Baltimore has managed to avoid such controversy for the most part. Its multicultural program was designed as an integral part of a much larger overhaul of the school curriculum, and the increased attention given to the contributions of minorities grew out of recommendations developed by a carefully selected task force of scholars, school administrators and community leaders.

The city calls its approach "multicultural" rather than "Afrocentric" in order to emphasize the fact that it aims to address the contributions of all America's minorities. Still, the first phase of the program, which starts this year, will concentrate on African-Americans, since blacks comprise some 80 percent of the present public school enrollment. Succeeding years will introduce components that expand on the history and culture of Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian-Americans.

Multiculturalism as a philosophy is based on the twin assumptions that traditional teaching has ignored the role people of color have played in shaping world history and civilization, and that the introduction of such materials into the school curriculum can have a positive effect on the self-esteem and academic achievement of minority students. The first assumption is virtually self-evident. The latter, however, while surely a reasonable proposition, has yet to be proven. Moreover, the Baltimore school system is still in the process of developing plans to test the efficacy of the multicultural approach.

It's probably too late to quibble over the school system's decision to implement the program system-wide before gaining more experience with multiculturalism through pilot programs and the like. Still, school officials need to make evaluating the program a top priority. Multiculturalism shouldn't be an excuse for hedging on other needed reforms, and it is certainly no substitute for the books, supplies and other essential pedagogical tools that have always been in short supply.

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