Urbanities

Maggie Gallagher
The Myth of Multiculture
Spring 1991

My first brush with the latest educational fad took place one fine December morning, not long after I enrolled my son in public kindergarten. I was standing in my kitchen, filling a planter box with narcissus bulbs destined yet again never to bloom, when a small voice interrupted my agricultural reveries.

“Mom,” my son Patrick said, “what’s Kwanza?”

Kwanza, in case you were wondering, is an African-American holiday invented in the late Sixties, said to be inspired by African winter solstice rituals.

“Well, why do you want to know?” I asked.

“In school, we learned some Kwanza hymns.”

“Oh,” I said, officially surprised and delighted, as mothers of kindergartners often are. “Sing one for me.”

He switched into performance mode, warbling, “These Seven Principles, These Seven Principles, These Seven Principles.”

Unfortunately, at that point his memory failed him, and I did not figure out, until much later, whether these sacred principles were things like Truth, Justice, and the American Way, or Father Sun, Mother Earth, and Nuke South Africa.

Kwanza hymns were my first, though by no means my last, encounter with multiculturalism. In particular, this was my first experience with what multiculturalism looks like from the perspective of a group of people almost never mentioned in the heated exchange of abstractions that dominate the academic debate: the parents of public schoolchildren. It left a queer taste.

Kwanza is perhaps a trifle, but the incident crystallized my growing reservations about the stated purposes and actual effects of multiculturalism. The odd thing about Kwanza, and its sudden leap into the New York public school curriculum, is that teaching Kwanza was not part of multiculturalism’s stated objective: exposing New York’s schoolchildren to many different cultures. Kwanza is part of no culture at all. No Africans observe Kwanza. As for Americans, far more practice voodoo.

Kwanza is neither a lesson in African history nor an experience of Afro-American culture, but something quite different: an attempt to create a prefab culture. It is not an object of knowledge, but like so much of multiculturalism, the effluvium of a wish, a wish to build a new American culture from the ground up, with other people’s children.

In theory, multiculturalism broadens our children’s knowledge. As Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, editors of a volume on “multicultural literacy,” put it:

As the world becomes more of a single economic entity, there is a corresponding need for all citizens to have not only a fundamental understanding of their own culture (in part to conserve it), but also a knowledge of the cultures of the rest of the world.

This seems a sensible, if ambitious, idea. But programs traveling under the name of multiculturalism vary wildly. In Community School District 23, according to the Board of Education’s Program Highlights of the Fifteen Funded Multi-Cultural Education Pilot Programs, “students will be assigned a disabling condition during the entire school day for the purpose of gaining first-hand experience and better insight” into what it is like to be disabled. In another district students perform jazz and sing in rhythm and blues groups. According to the Multicultural Education Resource Guide, published by the Board of Education in 1989, multicultural programs available to New York City schools range from the deliciously named “Program Initiatives to Reduce Prejudice and Improve Intergroup Relations” (which among other things promises “the use of puppet theater to reduce prejudice”) to Chinatown walking tours and workshops in flamenco dance.

In these and other ways, multicultural education is supposed to foster “mutual understanding between races and ethnic groups,” according to Basir Mchawi, who works for the Board of Ed on the proposed “Africa-centered” Ujamaa Institute.

Fostering ethnic harmony is another admirable goal, though it is different from giving all citizens a “knowledge of the cultures of the rest of the world.” I am not sure that multiculturalism is doing either.

A group of whites are discussing plans for neighborhood caroling. Someone suggests they invite the black families on the block to go along.

“Oh no,” one neighbor pipes up, “we can’t do that. They celebrate Kwanza.”

These are clearly people who, despite their close proximity to real live black people, continue to get their information about African-Americans from the press. As one of my neighbors pointed out, there is no excuse for this ignorance of the well educated. All you have to do to figure out what religion our black neighbors practice is get up early enough on Sunday to see the crowds trooping over to Greenwood Baptist Church. Embarrassing as it may be to admit, most African-Americans are Christians, and those who are not are probably Muslims. More black New Yorkers observe the Fast of Ramadan than Kwanza, but the New York City school system, in the name of boosting black self-esteem, insists on teaching our children that blacks are pagans.

Despite the recent outbreak of hyphen envy among black intellectuals, a recent poll showed the overwhelming majority of American blacks prefer “black” to “African-American.” (A retrograde 2 percent want to stick with Negro.) Their response ought not to have been surprising. Most blacks are at least sixth- or seventh-generation Americans. By the fourth generation, for most Americans, ethnicity gives way to Simple Americanism.

I am English, Irish, Scottish, German, and French. That makes my son an English-Irish-Scottish-German-Jewish-French-Austrian-Russian-Czechoslovakian-American. So I had a great deal of sympathy when a friend of mine encountered the myth of the hyphenated American in a particularly virulent form.

She was standing with some other mothers waiting to pick up her son from a pre-K class. The door opened, but instead of ushering the parents in, the teacher solemnly gathered everyone around for an announcement.

“It has been decided that New York’s public schools should no longer celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional way,” she explained. “It’s degrading to the Indians.” Instead, she suggested a more international celebration. The children would gather around to eat a special meal, while wearing hats adorned with the flags of their native countries.

One father spoke up. “I’m Italian and my wife is Filipino. What do we do?” So sorry: only one country of origin to a customer, please. “You’ll just have to choose,” the parents were told.

So my friend Sara mulled over her son Fritz’s complicated origins and decided to call him an Englishman.

“What flag do I get?” Fritz asked excitedly.

“You can have the British,” his mother cheerfully replied.

Fritz burst into tears. “I want America, I want America! “ he cried.

So do most of us; so does much of the rest of the world. Americans are not a people in the conventional sense, because America is a unique invention, a nation bound not by blood but by an idea: the equality of men under the law, an equality arising from their humanity itself, not from any accident of birth, and bringing with it certain rights also to be thought of as essential, and potentially universal.

American history is largely the difficult and often dangerous history of that idea, the social and political institutions it created, and the people who cultivated, fought for, and died for them. To these people we, as their posterity, owe a debt of filial gratitude. George Washington had no children. He is nonetheless one of my forefathers, though as far as I can tell not a single ancestor of mine set foot on American soil until well after the Civil War. To say that ideas do not matter, to say that “all cultures are equally valuable,” regardless of their affiliation with this American idea, or—in another version—that “ethnicity determines culture” and therefore excuses some people from such affiliation, is to dissolve the covenant that forms America.

As the confused rhetoric of the multiculturalists suggests, there are two intermingled, yet competing visions of multiculturalism. The first is internationalist: The aim of education is to create citizens of the world, with access to a global base of knowledge. Call it Western Civilization, plus. As an ideal, it has an appealing breadth: New York City schools should graduate students well-grounded in Asian, African, Native American, Asian-American, and African-American cultures, as well as American and European languages, literature, and history. How we are to produce such prodigious scholars nobody mentions.

The second vision of multiculturalism is the opposite of internationalist. It is parochial and ethnic and regards multiculturalism as a means to deepen ethnic attachments, and even—especially for black children—to replace a national culture with a narrower, racial affiliation. At the extreme, multiculturalism logically descends into Afro-centrism, a misnamed ideology that would obliterate African history by transforming it into the avatar of Western civilization.

These two visions of multiculturalism, antithetical as they are, nonetheless share this in common: Neither attempts to educate children about any existing culture. Both seek to create, out of bits and pieces of the past, a brand-new culture, a new past and a new vision of the future.

The two warring visions of multiculturalism fight over this question: Shall our children be cosmopolitan citizens of the world, or partisans of ethnic culture? Yet both these alternatives present themselves for serious consideration only because we have lost faith in American culture.

So we now celebrate cultural diversity instead of teaching our children the difficult and very American virtue of tolerance. Tolerance means rubbing shoulders with people who worship false gods, wear funny clothes, and don’t know how to raise children properly. It means fighting, if necessary, for their right to be wrong. If all cultures are equally good, then there is no need for tolerance. In its place, we teach our children indifference, and ignorance, and the insistently repeated mantra: that all people are the same, a lie we use to fill the void left by our loss of the ancient truth that every human being is sacred.

Last fall, I investigated a public grade school in Westchester. The school, which has an excellent academic reputation, was very proud of its multicultural program. In particular, it boasted a teacher of part-Hawaiian descent who exposed children to Hawaiian culture by having them make grass skirts and telling them stories about Pele, the volcano goddess.

To understand what it was to be an ancient Hawaiian is a great and ambitious undertaking. Comprehending an alien culture, even in part, requires intense study, sustained intellectual honesty, and a well-developed moral imagination. To put on hula skirts, however, is easy, and fun to boot. In this way and a thousand other ways, multiculturalism replaces honest ignorance with the illusion of knowledge. To anyone with a serious interest in preserving Hawaiian culture, this is far more dangerous than mere neglect. It is the substitution of kitsch for culture. Multiculturalism is a lie, not only about our own culture, but about other peoples’ cultures as well.

E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s phrase, “cultural literacy,” is an apt one, for culture illuminates language, releases it from the present tense, and enables us to converse with the great minds of the past. Without a liberal education, the conversation ceases: The forms and images, convictions, prejudices, and ideals of the past—sometimes the very recent past—become incomprehensible. At best, the past becomes merely picturesque, in the way grass skirts are picturesque. We can manipulate our pictures of the past only as a savage can handle a computer, as an inert object of terror or delight, whose real meaning is opaque to the mind, a totem in a cargo cult of ignorance.

The cult of multiculturalism would trap our children, and our nation, in a perpetual present from which we can neither comprehend the past nor contemplate the future nor judge the present.

The end result of multiculturalism is not more culture, but less. Multiculturalism is anticulture. It substitutes tidbits of a well-traveled and appallingly confident ignorance for real learning. It is as if we decided that, since learning one foreign language is not enough, we would instead teach our children a little bit of many different languages: a few words of French, a couple of Spanish nouns, a Japanese greeting, and a handful of spicy Cajun adjectives. We would end up with children unable to read any novel, or understand any foreigner, or create in any language. To the extent that multiculturalism succeeds, our nation’s horizons, instead of being broadened, are permanently narrowed. An ignorance that knows itself can be rectified: From an ignorance which mistakes itself for knowledge, there is no escape.

Nothing says more about the misplaced priorities of today’s curriculum than this fact: Almost 84 percent of high school seniors know who Harriet Tubman was, but less than a third can place the Civil War in the correct half-century. And yet, New York City’s official position remains that multicultural education will permeate every aspect of educational policy.” As I write, the chancellor is about to submit a new five-year plan to expand the multiculturalist curriculum.

A few weeks ago, I received a notice from my school about the social studies curriculum. I noted with relief that finally my son will study real American history, instead of learning about My Friend the Grocer. But my joy is not undiluted. The only three Americans my son has ever studied in three years of school (two public, one private) are Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.

“Why are we only studying black people?” Patrick asks.

“I don’t know,” I carefully reply. “These are three good Americans to know about. They each did some very brave things. But they are not the three most important people in American history.”

“Abraham Lincoln?” my son suggests.

“George Washington,” I shoot back.

“Thomas Jefferson!” he cries triumphantly, then turns his attention back to Super Mario Bros. 3.

For now, it will have to do.

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