Reflections on the 1991 New York
on Multicultural Social Studies
I would like to say something
positive about the June, 1991, Report of the New York State Social Studies
Review and Development Committee. So, here it is. Entitled,
One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence, the
report is the work of dedicated folks who feel strongly about education
and who have worked hard to make things better. It's good that people
are thinking about what it means to be an American. And it's good
that we are acknowledging the diversity of American culture, and that textbooks
and curricula now present a less sanitized history. There is, as
the Report states, greater emphasis on "a more tolerant, inclusive, and
realistic vision of American identity than any that has existed in the
The report assails as "an impossible
task" the present goal of the social studies, identified as "the teaching
of large and ever-increasing amounts of information, without adequate organizing
and supporting frameworks."2 It proposes, instead:
...a more focused, conceptual basis emphasizing
the development of fundamental tools, concepts, and intellectual processes
by which students may approach knowledge in a variety of ways and evaluate
contradictions in history and the social studies.3
So far, so good; it is difficult to imagine a coherent
pedagogy which does not embrace such goals. The goal of the Committee,
however, and our interest here, is to flesh out a more specific understanding
of what the kids in New York State should be doing in Social Studies class.
Conclusions and recommendations
are scattered throughout the report, making it somewhat difficult to summarize,
but a reasonably concise overview of the Committee's thinking may be found
in this list of "principles for teaching and learning," from the "Executive
That portion of the report which
addresses methodology is unlikely to stir up much controversy. Its
recommendations come straight from the wish lists of education theorists
everywhere--increased funding, improved teacher preparation, better ongoing
teacher development, more supportive school organizations, and a decreased
reliance on textbook-based pedagogy. It might be argued that some
of the findings, in-service teacher education, for instance, seem to call
only for more of what we already do, without much attention to their efficacy
or value (see Palonsky, 1986, about in-service programs in New Jersey5).
The selection of subject matter content should be
culturally inclusive, based on up-to-date scholarship in history, the social
sciences, and related fields.
The subject matter content selected for inclusion
should represent diversity and unity within and across groups.
The subject matter content selected for inclusion
should be set within the context of its time and place.
The subject matter selected for inclusion should
give priority to depth over breadth.
Multicultural perspectives should infuse the entire
curriculum, prekindergarten through grade 12.
The subject matter content should be treated as socially
constructed and therefore tentative--as is all knowledge.
The teaching of social studies should draw and build
on the experience and knowledge that students bring to the classroom.
Pedagogy should incorporate a range of interactive
modes of teaching and learning in order to foster understanding (rather
than rote learning), examination of controversy, and mutual learning.4
While the suggestions made
about methodology are generally sound, they are not much emphasized in
the report; the focus of the Committee's work is on the content of social
studies syllabi. (We may say this despite their efforts to de-emphasize
the curricular role of subject matter content, for the fact remains that
content issues occupy the central place in this report.) It is here
that the Committee, flailing about in the desperate attempt to heal the
world in a classroom, has wandered deep into never-never land. Though
its multicultural curriculum seems to be full of pedagogical happy thoughts,
the Committee has been a bit liberal with the pixie dust. They have
forgotten to tell the Lost Boys that after Hook and his DWEM cronies are
vanquished, Peter will fly home to the Nursery, leaving them as orphaned
as ever, and with a lot of schoolwork to catch up on.
I suppose I have to explain
myself now. The report contains--indeed, is built around--two crippling
blunders, evidenced partly as explicit statements, and partly as underlying
assumptions. The first of these blunders is an error of degree: in
the attempt to rectify the chauvinism of past (and many present) curricula,
the Committee has over-emphasized the role and the value of cultural and
ethnic diversity in America.
That we are a culturally diverse
nation is not in dispute. That all of the cultures of the world represent
variations on the "ways of being human" is not in dispute. That education
must include an appreciation of cultural differences, and a sensitivity
to the interpretive power of cultural perspective, is not in dispute (at
least, not with me). What is in dispute is whether there is, indeed,
a common heritage and a common culture about which the schools should base
the curriculum, or whether what usually passes for the common culture--the
presumed amalgam from the melting pot--is merely the hegemony of Western
European culture. Western culture, in this latter view, is no more
deserving of pedagogical emphasis than any other. Indeed, a sense
of curricular affirmative action would suggest that the past and present
dominance of Western culture is good reason to emphasize, even exaggerate,
the relative contributions of other cultural and ethnic traditions.
This is, apparently, the position of the New York committee.
In part, the issue here is
the degree to which education ought to be bent to the service of political
goals, as distinct from an emphasis on personalistic goals. I should
note that my argument, here, stems from a belief that this distinction
is real and should be recognized; and furthermore, that we neglect the
primacy of personalistic concerns only at the expense of quality in education.
There are, of course, longstanding traditions legitimizing the design of
education around political ends: from John Dewey and "progressive" education
(wherein the distinction between social and personal theoretically vanishes)
to the more naked political purposes signalled by the patriotic symbols
common to the public school. The Committee was convened as an official
body charged with a specific mandate by the Commissioner of Education;
as such, it was perhaps inevitable that the its members should have opted
for a highly political agenda, albeit of a different sort than that which
has perennially plagued public education.
I refer to the report's emphasis
on diversity as a blunder because neither the interests of the pupil nor
those of society (to the extent that there is a distinction) are served
by the report's prescription for multiculturalism as the centerpiece of
curricular goals. The individual student, especially the minority
or disadvantaged kid, is not helped in her life by a curriculum that seeks
to mask both the impact and the value of Western culture, while emphasizing
its flaws. Nor are we, as a society which tries--however imperfectly--to
accommodate itself to the variety of its constituents, served by education
which accentuates pluralism.
This complaint is not mine
alone. Arthur Schlesinger, for one, has staked out this territory
lucidly and urgently, both in his "Dissent" to the report of the Committee
(to which he was a "consultant"), and in his book, The Disuniting of America.
Schlesinger is concerned with an emphasis on ethnicity in education which
both mirrors and aggravates a growing American and global tendency toward
ethnic fragmentation. I confess that I am in nearly complete agreement
with him, and I will abridge my criticism of this aspect of the Committee's
work by making reference to these more eloquent essays, and to Mr. Schlesinger's
The underlying philosophy of the report, as I
read it, is that ethnicity is the defining experience for most Americans,
that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, that the division into ethnic
groups establishes the basic structure of American society and that a main
objective of public education should be the protection, strengthening,
celebration and perpetuation of ethnic origins and identities.6
I differ from Schlesinger only
insofar as he has not chosen to make an issue of what I consider to be
an equally grave problem in the report--that second "blunder" to which
I now turn.
Underlying everything in the
New York report is a premise about the nature of history which directs
the Committee's orientation from the outset, colors its recommendations,
and waylays all the best intentions of its members. Let's call it
A young man, who happens to
be working toward an American History doctoral degree, recently said, in
a voice heavy with sarcasm: "There are still those who think that History
has something to do with the search for truth." His meaning, of course,
is that personal and cultural biases necessarily pervade any historical
inquiry, and that one cannot meaningfully speak of "historical truth."
So far as it goes, I agree: history, meaning the account and interpretation
we give of the past, is not objective. But this student, with so
many of his academic colleagues, has signed on to an unfounded corollary:
that because history cannot be absolutely objective, it cannot be objective
in any sense. The attempt to achieve objectivity is, therefore, not
warranted, and, certainly, not imperative. This is, as well, the
premise from which the New York committee proceeds.
"Subject matter content,"
the report explains, "should be treated as socially constructed and therefore
tentative--as is all knowledge."7 And again, "To most, if not all
committee members, it was critically important to view history as interpretations
of the past that undergo continual revision and challenge..."8
Why should we attend to these
comments? Isn't the report merely stating the epistemologically obvious?
What can we say about anything with certainty? The problem is that
the Committee's observations here are more than casual nods to metacognition--they
mean it. If history is understood as a "tentative" interpretation
of the past--and nothing more--then a number of things follow. It
will no longer make sense to speak of patterns, of direction, or of meaning
in history. More importantly, it will no longer make sense to even
try. The idea of historical understanding--of History as anything
other than method--becomes nonsensical.
If relativistic extremism
of this sort is truly inherent in the Committee's work, then we should
expect to see--and we do see--further consequences reified in their treatment
of history in the curriculum. Specifically, there will be a problem
with content, since the established canon of what signifies the major themes
and events of history is no longer meaningful. What do we teach when
it doesn't matter what we teach? The first, and obvious answer is
to teach everything, and, to a point, the Committee concurs:
A multicultural perspective, then, means that
all the applicable viewpoints of the historical and social protagonists
should be explored...9
The selection of subject matter content should
be culturally inclusive, based on up-to-date scholarship in history, the
social sciences, and related fields.10
The history curricula of public schools should
be constructed around the principle that all people have been significant
actors in human events.11
History--in the largest sense--does involve, quite
literally, all people. But to construct the curricula around this
"principle"...? Consider the surreal quality which must have accompanied
the discussions to which the report alludes here:
Early in its work, the Committee agreed that
to reflect a multicultural perspective, the syllabi need not attempt to
provide an encyclopedic list of every contribution by every person and
It is to their credit that they adopted such a reasonable
stance, but their language suggests that there may have been some debate
about this, with conceptual purists presumably taking the position that
we may properly exclude nothing.
So, we're stuck. If
everything has equal merit, and yet we cannot be literally inclusive, how
do we make decisions about content? The Committee's answer is twofold.
First, content is de-emphasized: "Shift the emphasis," recommends the report,
"from the mastery of information to the devolopment of fundamental tools,
concepts, and intellectual processes."13 These concepts, it is argued,
...should be the focus of teaching and learning
in the social studies, with applications, contexts and examples drawn from
multiple cultural sources... Multicultural knowledge in this conception
of the social studies becomes a vehicle and not the goal.14
In the second part of the solution--how
nicely it all dovetails!--we turn to content selection on the basis of
political sensitivities. This is nothing new: we have been choosing
our history and our curriculum on more-or-less political grounds since
the days of the one-room schoolhouse. There is a reasonable case
to be made, however, that progress has been made in shedding some of the
jingoism and gaudy patriotism of earlier generations of textbooks.
It is disappointing, then, to see the New York committee set back the clock
by embracing new, but equally distorting political criteria in designing
curricula. At best, we end up with a form of educational affirmative
action, and at worst, a form of political expediency in which those who
shout loudest secure the most pages in the syllabus. "The various
peoples who make up our nation," explains the report, "insist that their
participation be recognized, and that their knowledge and perspectives
be treated with parity."15 The Committee appears to have responded
to this insistence: an assumption of equivalency among ethnic and cultural
groups runs through the report, both with regard to inherent worthiness
and educative value.
Political criteria in curriculum
choices are particularly evident in the report's discussion about language
sensitivity. The basis for determining whether a word or phrase is
acceptable for syllabi is found now in the sensitivities of relevant ethnic
and social groups. The committee explains the process:
The syllabi and all related support materials
and locally developed curricula should be regularly reviewed to insure
that the language used is accurate and reflects current scholarship.
Classroom instruction must include sensitivity to and awareness of the
changing legitimacy of terms, such as the shift in meaning of terms such
as "third world," "Negro," and "Oriental."16
I don't much care for the expression, "political
correctness," because it seems to me a distortion pinned on its foes by
the political Right, an ironical straw man, you could say; but how else
can we describe the Committee's approach? As an example of inappropriate
language, the report criticizes syllabi which:
...refer to "slaves" or "the everyday life of
a slave,' as if being a slave were one's role or status, similar to that
of gardener, cook, or carpenter. To refer, rather, to "enslaved persons"
would call forth the essential humanity of those enslaved, helping students
to understand from the beginning the true meaning of slavery.17
Yikes! If you say to me that it offends you
that I say "slave" instead of "enslaved person", that's a good enough reason
for me to think of changing my language. But when the New York State
Social Studies Review and Development Committee declares that this is how
we can better teach "the true meaning of slavery"...well, what a load of
To dig my hole even deeper
(the p.c. police are already after me), consider the Committee's example
"of the way in which sound scholarship can inform practice:"
It is still commonplace to hear teachers in social
studies classes talk about "races" of people. Yet most social scientists
today regard the concept of race as essentially outdated, simplistic, and
unhelpful. Students need to see "race" as a cultural phenomenon,
not a physical description....Until this kind of scholarship is explicitly
made part of teachers' knowledge base, it will not be reflected in classrooms;
whole generations of children will continue to be miseducated on this fundamental
concept; and information which is essential (although not in itself sufficient)
to heal our society will be largely unknown.18
The Committee, I suppose, means to touch on the artificiality
of applying strict racial categories to a human family in which genetic
physical differences are blended across an unbroken spectrum, from the
very large to the very small, the very light to the very dark, etc.
But there is something both naive and pompous about the suggestion that
the common understanding of the term, "race" is not only erroneous, but
somehow responsible in significant measure for miseducation and the sickness
of society. I suggest that when our academics start assigning such
importance to the Talmudic dissection of single words, they are long overdue
for a dose of the real world.
I do not object to the New
York syllabus report because it recommends the study of other cultures
and an appreciation of multiple perspectives. I object because these
things are too important to be trivialized and distorted-- which is, I
fear, the unintendended consequence of the Committee's approach.
I object to it because it sets up an approach to study other cultures,
other ethnic groups, other perspectives in the worst possible way.
It establishes a hollow pedagogy in which students and teachers are expected
to extract some kind of education from a curriculum which denies meaningful
content by deriding the possibility of objective knowledge and insisting
on a relentless equivalency between events, among people, nations, and
cultures. Paradoxically, this historical relativism then paves the
way for an educational emphasis on the differences between Americans, for
an excess of pluribus and too little unum, as Schlesinger would say.
Seeing the world through the
eyes of others--other men, other women, other cultures, other times--is
at the heart of education. Making sense of these different perspectives
involves making comparative observations, even judgments, that require
some knowledge of the significant features of history--even if we can justify
their significance only by virtue of tradition. The content of the
"traditional" history canon is not characteristically arbitrary or selectively
biased, except insofar as it is biased toward those actors, events and
ideas which figured prominently and directly in the development of present
human society. I believe, therefore, that a grounding in this history
is crucial to a genuinely multicultural education, and not, as the New
York committee suggests, somehow antithetical to it.
"What I hate," as Mr. Schlesinger,
quoting Gore Vidal, remarks, "is good citizenship history."19 What
I suppose we all mean by this is that when history--or, the social studies--is
designed for political ends, the quality of education is eroded.
It might be argued that the social studies are inherently political; and
in a broad sense, it is so. But there are degrees of political emphasis
and intent, and in this, less is better. We will never achieve a
curriculum free of political content, just as we will never, in an absolute
sense, achieve historical objectivity; yet for both, there is something
to be said for trying. It is for surrendering this ground that the
Committee is most culpable. They have responded to past excesses
of political content by changing the flavor and shovelling in more; they
have met the inherent problems in the struggle for objectivity by proclaiming
the triumph of relativism.
It is interesting to ask which
came first for the authors of this report: the commitment to multiculturalism,
which found, in a strictly applied sense of historical relativism, a convenient
rationale; or, was it the disillusionment with history, with a multicultural
curriculum providing an elegant means of dodging the implications of a
view of history that cannot speak of "truth?"
Multiculturalism, as an educational
paradigm on the New York committee model, suffers from conceptual flaws
which will translate into less effective pedagogy in the classroom.
I share, with Mr. Schlesinger, a preference for seeing the knowledge of
other cultures, and a critical under-standing of our own, as one of the
chief goals, and not as the "vehicle," of education:
I will be satisfied if we can teach children
to read, write and calculate. If students understand the nature of
our western democratic tradition, they will move into social criticism
on their own.20
What I hope is that when we address
ourselves to real classrooms, where the challenges and goals of education
are so basic and so pressing, that Mr. Schlesinger, myself and the members
of the New York committee have more in common than we are prone to believe.
We all know what we're after. When a kid's had the benefit of a good
education, it's not hard to see, it's not a subtle or tenuous thing: she's
literate; she's articulate; she has an interest in who we are, have been
and might be; she takes joy in learning; she has a sense of her own potential
to make a difference in the world. This, at least, is what I believe,
and I will take it on faith for as long as I can that, on this, we all
1. The New York State Social Studies Review and
Development Committee, "One nation, many peoples: a declaration of
cultural interdependence". (Report of the Committee, June, 1991.)
2. Ibid., p. 16
3. Ibid., p. ix.
4. Ibid., pp. viii-ix.
5. Stuart B. Palonsky, 900 Shows a Year (New York:
6. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "A Dissenting Opinion",
in The New York Committee report, p. 45.
7. The New York Committee report, p. 13.
8. Ibid., p. 3.
9. Ibid., p. 7.
10. Ibid., p. viii.
11. Ibid., p. 20.
12. Ibid., p. 21.
13. Ibid., p. 16.
14. Ibid., p. viii
15. Ibid., p. vii.
16. Ibid., p. 20.
17. Ibid., p. 20.
18. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
19. Jon Wiener, "The scholar squirrels and the
national security state: an interview with Gore Vidal," Radical History
Review, Spring 1989
p. 136. Quoted in Schlesinger, Disuniting
20. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "A Dissenting Opinion",
in The New York Committee Report, p. 47.