by John Attinasi
Providing universal public education has always been considered a function of U.S. democracy and a leaven of the society. For urban school educators, schooling has many new roles within the broad democratic concepts of instruction and equity. We are committed to educating all children and believing that all can learn and achieve. As the noted scholar Asa G. Hilliard III has said, "Respect for diversity is the hallmark of democracy." Students of diverse backgrounds and social conditions, languages and dialects now populate our schools, a situation that we would have thought unusual a few decades ago. The graduating class of the year 2010 is already born and two years old. Demographics tell us that most of these children are culturally and linguistically unlike the majority of teacher candidates, teachers, and administrators.
As educators, we have to balance overwhelming new information, new demands, and new technology with the ways we know how to teach young people. We cannot do it all. But being unaware of innovations in child development and in educating culturally and linguistically diverse students is like ignoring the polio vaccine. It is time to take the most crucial aspect of our professional mission, leadership in educating the children in urban schools and communities - who are more culturally diverse than ever - and to renew and advance our attention to their achievement in the stressful urban setting. This challenge may be discomforting.
I used to love the word "closure." I liked the end of a course, finishing data gathering, closing the debate before a vote, completing an article, picking the last tomato, and washing the last dish. Because I relate to products more than process, it has taken me many years to appreciate the process of things. A conversation with a sociolinguist colleague, Ngure wa Mwachofi of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, changed my mind about having "closure." He told me about post-modern philosopher Michel Foucault's analysis of the term. Foucault said that closure illuminates a practice that has always exhibited a dangerous tendency: the need that many people have to label and dismiss, to feel good and stop thinking. This meaning of closure has bothered me. It relates to how we think of politics and multiculturalism.
In politics, we are so confused by the end of the Cold War that we want closure on whether or not the Russians are our friends. How we use language is also political. In language, closure means that we can change a word to create a "politically correct" phrase. Should we say Hispanic or Latino? Asian, not Oriental? Closure enables us to have comfort. It puts a label on a box - a label that inhibits us from opening the box to see what is really inside.
Many people have sought closure in the process of defining multiculturalism and multicultural education. Once we get past the disuniting debates about what books or knowledge should be required (and those debates are necessary for every person to go through in order to establish a foundation of common knowledge about issues of cultural diversity in curriculum), we then need to engage in multicultural awareness, learn to appreciate diversity, and take action. Having closure often ends in "doing multiculturalism" this year, like we "do dinosaurs" in second grade. What is discomforting is that the definition of multiculturalism is unsatisfying, because it does not provide the closure that most people seek. They would be disappointed to hear James Banks, key scholar in the field of multicultural education, say that multiculturalism is a concept, a movement, and a process, and, as such, there can be no closure.
The concept of multiculturalism itself has evolved. There was first the notion that only culturally and linguistically diverse people need multicultural education. Then came the human relations idea that everyone's uniqueness and feelings should be acknowledged. Next, the ethnic studies movement advocated the study of excluded minority groups and world literatures. There are now proponents who attempt to combine all three of these perspectives to help enhance self-esteem, enable positive interaction, and raise global awareness. Among scholars in the field, the goals behind education that is multicultural and socially reconstructionist are to improve academic outcomes; promote equity among gender, ethnicity, and exceptionality; and effect change in the society beyond the school.
These are merely the concept or group of concepts about multiculturalism. As a movement, multiculturalism affects school leaders, parents, community members, and society as a whole. Multiculturalism challenges the vertical view of cultural development as the refined production of an elite (mostly white men of leisure and power) and recognizes, from an anthropological perspective, that all cultures have resources and value. Paulo Freire worked to develop literacy in marginalized people by initiating dialogue with them to help them recognize that the ideas, actions, values, and objects of everyday existence are cultural and worth reading about.
As a process, multiculturalism obviously does not provide closure. Change is the only constant. This concept is what philosophers say and how calculus students solve problems. Viewing multiculturalism as a process should return us to a larger sphere of schooling as a function of U.S. democracy and a leaven of our society. The process of multiculturalism should connect our school learning to the elements of authentic learning - including critical inquiry and other higher-order thinking - rich multidirectional conversation and other linguistic modes, social engagement and support for learning, and, most of all, real world applications in classroom instruction, all of which are essential to principles of democracy. In this regard, multicultural educational processes serve to open opportunity for learning to all students by stimulating students to engage in different forms of inquiry. For instance, students can pursue different forms of inquiry when addressing societal issues (e.g., the environment, politics, and social reform) across the curriculum - in mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, and so on.
Multiculturalism requires not only a change in curriculum, but a change in school climate and pedagogy. In addition to implementing a higher-order, multicultural curriculum, schools need to address affective issues. Schools and the people in them need to invite diversity, eradicate stereotypes, enhance self-esteem, encourage all members of the community to have a voice, and demand educational achievement. The central practice in schools is communication, where there is equal emphasis on spoken, written, and nonverbal forms. The focus on communication in urban classrooms is critical, given the centrality of language and the variety of linguistic expression in homes and schools.
Without looking deeply into multiculturalism, the need for closure becomes a thin veil for a tendency toward exclusion of underrepresented cultural groups. All of our practices and conceptualization require critical examination and change. We must begin where each child and each adult is at the moment. We cannot ask for action from a person coming to first awareness. We need to communicate so that awareness matures into making changes and taking action appropriate for our work, our place in the culture, and our place in the social system.
This paper was written by John Attinasi, professor, Department of Teacher Education, and director, Bilingual Credentialing, California State University-Long Beach. It was published in 1994 by NCREL's Urban Education Program as part of its Urban Education Monograph Series.