Multicultural education describes a system of instruction that attempts to
foster cultural pluralism and acknowledges the differences between races
and cultures. It addresses the educational needs of a society that
contains more than one set of traditions, that is a mixture of many
The goal of multicultural education is to help students understand and
appreciate cultural differences and similarities and to recognize the
accomplishments of diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. It is
a practice that hopes to transform the ways in which students are
instructed by giving equal attention to the contributions of all the
groups in a society. Special focus may be placed on minority groups that
have been under-represented in the past. A multicultural curriculum
strives to present more than one perspective of a cultural phenomenon or
an historical event. The old American melting pot metaphor is challenged
as no longer being valid. Adherents of multicultural educational theory
believe that the idea that students should be Americanized, in reality,
assumed they should conform to a white, Eurocentric cultural model. In its
place, multiculturalists believe school curricula should embrace a whole
host of voices that exist in multicultural U.S. society. Their belief is
that this transformation in the methods of learning is a start in
addressing inequities in U.S. society. They believe this is increasingly
important because of the changing population mix in the United States. For
example, demographers estimate that by the year 2020, 46 percent of all
public school students will be children of color.
The roots of multicultural education lie in the civil rights movements of
various groups, including African Americans and women. In addition, the
rise in ethnic consciousness and a more critical analysis of textbooks and
other materials played a role. Community leaders, activists, and parents
began to demand curricula that were more supportive and consistent with
the cultural and racial diversity in the United States. In the late 1960s
and 1970s, the concepts of multicultural education begin to emerge, and by
the 1980s, an entire body of scholarship addressing multiculturalism
One of the pioneers of multicultural education was James Banks, who
believed all aspects of education needed to be transformed in order to
create a multicultural school environment. These aspects include teaching
methods, instructional materials, teacher attitudes, as well as the way
the performance of students is assessed. Banks described five areas of
multicultural education in which teachers and researchers are involved:
As of the early 2000s, there is no universally agreed upon multicultural
curriculum. Teachers tend, however, to take one of two approaches. Some
use what has been called the multicultural festival approach, in which
students are invited to celebrate ethnic diversity by being exposed to
foods, holidays, and festivals of other cultures. Many critics say that
this conveys the notion that diversity is only important during
celebratory moments. Other teachers apply a transformative approach,
weaving different perspectives on cultures throughout the curriculum.
Multicultural education can also be roughly divided into three different
In spite of the fact that there are a variety of approaches to
multicultural education, supporters point to several shared ideals among
those who practice this kind of education. Shared ideals include:
There are many people who are either opposed to multicultural education or
believe it has numerous problems. Some feel that the idea of multicultural
education tends to divide cultures instead of building tolerance
between them. They believe that American students should be taught to
think of themselves as part of a whole rather than as people from
different places who just happen to live in the same country.
Others believe multicultural education interferes with a child expressing
his or her own individuality, by placing too much emphasis on ethnic or
racial backgrounds. Even supporters recognize that someone's
culture may be influenced as much by their sex or socioeconomic status as
their race or ethnicity. Culture is itself complex and varies from
community to community,
to family, or from person to person. The dynamic and variable nature of
culture makes teaching about multiple cultural influences a daunting if
not impossible task.
Critics also point out that educating students about the formation of U.S.
democracy inevitably focuses on its European origins. If students are not
informed that the dominant participants in the formation of the United
States were white males, these critics say, students will not receive an
accurate picture of U.S. history. In addition, there is the belief that if
citizens are not willing to subordinate some parts of their heritage to
the present set of dominant cultural values, then these citizens may find
it even harder to integrate the mainstream.
—Centered or focused on Europe or European peoples, especially in
relation to historical or cultural influence.
—A social or educational theory that encourages interest in many
cultures within a society rather than in only a mainstream culture.
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Education Policy and Politics:
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Florence, KY: Routledge, 2005.
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Challenges of Multicultural
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Taos, NM: Paradigm Publications, 2005.
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Narrative and Experience in
Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
Ramsey, Patricia G.
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New York: Teachers College Press, 2004.
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110 Miller Hall, Box 353600, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
98195–3600. Web site:
National Association for Multicultural Education.
733 Fifteenth Street, NW, Suite 430, Washington, DC 20005. Web site:
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